The servant leader

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

The servant leader

Among the leaders of Korea, except for the military dictators, President Kim Young-sam showed the leadership of the eldest brother of a family. President Kim Dae-jung was a patriarchal leader, while President Roh Moo-hyun was like an elder brother. President Lee Myung-bak showed the leadership of a chief executive officer, while President Park Geun-hye was a princess.

President Moon Jae-in’s leadership is servant leadership. Sincerity is the prerequisite of servant leadership. When Moon visited the South Korean women’s ice hockey team recently, took a photo with them and signed their hockey sticks, he was probably showing servant leadership. “A joint team between the two Koreas will be a good opportunity to end ice hockey’s suffering as an unpopular sport,” Moon said. “It will also be a great starting point to improve inter-Korean relations,” he added. And his remarks are probably genuine.

Moon has long been an icon of servant leadership. When the nation was holding protests to criticize the Park administration’s poor response to the Sewol ferry’s sinking, he joined the hunger protest of Kim Yeong-o, the father of a victim. In the sweltering heat, inside an uncomfortable tent in Gwanghwamun Square, Moon spent 10 days with Kim for the hunger strike. Without genuineness, it would not have been possible.

About 30 years ago, Moon was a human rights lawyer, and he climbed a crane as high as a 30-story building to meet workers who were laid off. It was a famous episode. On a hot summer day in August, Moon climbed the metal ladder and the protesters said their rage was resolved just by his action. Moon’s servant leadership, which has become a part of his life, is the virtue that made him the president. He was able to do so because of his genuine comradeship for the pains and lives of the laborers.

Sincerity, however, does not complete servant leadership. When sincerity meets strong conviction to make a leader obsessed with a goal, unforeseen ill effects arise. Sometimes, his or her sincerity can be questioned. Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian already told that lesson 2000 years ago by illustrating the life of an ancient Chinese military leader, Wu Qi.

Wu Qi is the origin of servant leadership. When he became a general, he wore the same uniform as the lowest-rank soldier and ate the same food.

There is a famous story about Wu Qi, which claims that he sucked out the pus from a soldier who was suffering from an abscess. When the soldier’s mother heard this, she cried. A neighbor asked her, “Your son is a soldier, yet the general sucked the pus out of his abscess. Why are you crying?” The mother replied, “In a bygone year, General Wu sucked the pus out of my son’s father. He was later killed while fighting for General Wu. Now that General Wu sucked the pus out of my son’s abscess, my child may also die in a battle.”

Sima Qian highly praised Wu Qi’s transparency and sincerity, but warned against his ambition. In order to become a general of the state of Lu, he had to murder his own wife, who was from the rival state of Qi.

When he was young, he also vowed that he would not return to his hometown until he became a senior official. The determination was his driving force, but it eventually became a bridle that cost him his life.

How can a leader escape from the bridle? Robert Greenleaf, who coined the term servant leadership, said vision is the key. For a servant leader to embrace other people’s concerns, he must have vision, Greenleaf said.

Vision does not come naturally. A leader must notice changes and have an insight into the future. Only then, the president’s dream will become the country’s dream, my dream and our dream.

No one doubts the sincerity of Moon and his visit to the women’s ice hockey team. But dialogue with North Korea cannot be the country’s dream just because it is the president’s dream. If it is a humiliating peace that requires the sacrifice of fairness and pride, it can never be our dream.

Machiavelli, who wrote “The Prince” 500 years ago, said when a leader lacks foresight and allows evil to grow until everyone becomes aware of it, there is no way to remove the evil. Moon should seriously brood over this lesson.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 25, Page 30

*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Yi Jung-jae
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)