[Viewpoint] The CEO should be retired

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[Viewpoint] The CEO should be retired

It’s an uneasy feeling watching the performance of the Lee Myung-bak administration. Key members’s disgraceful departures have given it at bad odor. “Running a country is a relay,” President Lee has said. “We have to sprint just like when you are passing the baton to the next runner in a 400-meter relay.” A determination to do his best at the end of his term is, of course, natural.

The problem, however, is the metaphor of the relay race and the baton. The baton signifies the administration’s identity and its achievements. Lee wants to pass the baton to his successor. But that is a reckless misunderstanding. Handing over the baton is something the CEO of a business group would think. Lee is a former CEO. Even if the top managers change, a company’s goal is passed along. But for a country, a change in the presidency is about fighting to win and bidding farewell. The transition in presidencies is not about passing on a baton.

If the opposition party wins the presidency, the baton will be dropped. The Lee administration’s policies will be terminated and thrown out. There has already been a precursor to that. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has basically shelved the “new town” construction projects. He wants to change the past, not continue it.

There is, of course, a way of running the country like a relay race. The liberal administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun can be the model. Winning two consecutive presidencies guaranteed a decade of rule by the liberals. If Lee’s party wins the presidency, he can pass on his baton.

The Lee administration is strange because its members don’t show the tenacity to win the next presidency. The administration is too busy handling its own tasks at hands. Winning the next presidency and managing the election fairly can be separated. The lack of desperation to win comes from Lee’s perspective as a former CEO. Lee appears to consider the end of a presidential term as he does the retirement of a CEO.

The CEO approach is the source of both the Lee administration’s successes and failures. Lee’s capabilities contributed greatly to Korea overcoming the global financial crisis rapidly. He also won the nuclear power plant project with the UAE through his skills as a CEO. But those achievements are now almost forgotten because they failed to touch the people’s emotions. One reason is that Lee didn’t have the political flair to sell his achievements.

Running a country is a job of constant uncertainties. A president must give some kind of shape to an ambiguous future. The people react sensitively to such vision. The people love a sense of audacious courage. The public goes wild over a maverick’s panache. President Lee, however, doesn’t have any. From the anti-U.S. beef candlelight protests to the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, he sat back silently and observed. A win-or-die confrontation is not Lee’s style. Even when he was CEO of a big company, he was never its owner.

At the end of Roh’s term, his approval ratings plummeted. His opponents despised him but couldn’t ignore him because they were afraid of Roh’s maverick streak. At the end of his term, Lee is a subject of ridicule. The “Naggomsu” podcast hosts and their fans do not feel intimidated. Lee has already shown his weakness, his lack of guts and decisiveness.

The conservatives demanded the ideological gap between the left and the right be rebuilt. Lee, however, was passive. Ideological and historical debates are unfamiliar to him. A businessman prefers pragmatism.

Lee also failed in public relations. The world is currently dominated by social networking services. Truth is manufactured and facts are fabricated. The president can distinguish truth from falsehood, but Lee did not try to persuade. His continued evasion fueled rumors and amplified their destructive power.

Lee didn’t want to enter politics. Not because he didn’t trust politics, but because of his calculations as a CEO. Because politics are uncertain, he didn’t want to invest in them. He allowed Representatives Lee Jae-oh and Lee Sang-deuk to perform his political duties with the National Assembly. But delegated political power is vulnerable to attacks from the opposition party.

Nor was Lee comfortable with unfamiliar aces. His experience as a CEO stabilizing his company prevented him from making bold, adventurous choices when appointing officials. He used people who are familiar with power. But inbreeding is fatal in personnel affairs. It fuels corruption and shrinks the horizon of presidential power.

“A country is not a company,” Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman said. In the self-help section of bookstores, Lee’s book, which he wrote as a businessman, was once a bestseller. Books by Ahn Cheol-soo and Bill Gates are now in its place. Those books have similar content and theories for success, but the success of a CEO and the success of a president of a country are very different. Krugman explained the difference as the byzantine complexity of running a country.

The limits and habits of a CEO are the core of the failures of the Lee administration. Lee needs time for introspection. He must rearm himself with convictions and a fighting spirit. He must study the successes and failures of his four years as president. He has to apologize for corruption and allowing the ruling party to step on him and over him to move forward. He also needs to reconstitute the line of the truth. He has to make clear what the truth is about controversial issues like mad cow disease and the FTA with the U.S.. He has to go after the sources of the rumors.

Determination and sacrifice can be a driving force for his last year in office. Confidence will produce sympathy. That’s the attitude for Lee to face his opponents. Without it, his withering away will quicken.

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Bo-gyoon
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