Balancing determination and communication
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I remember a story a retired senior government official shared. He recalled how he often found the country’s first president Syngnam Rhee and Austrian-born First Lady Francesca Rhee strolling in the presidential compound, then called Kyung Mu Dae, on his way from the elementary school in Hyoja-dong, Seoul in the 1950s. He still remembered how the president would wave at the children when they would peep over the wall to call out to the “grandpa president.” At the time, the people could see the president quite easily. The presidential office, later called the Blue House, became a heavily guarded palace after the infiltration of North Korean commandoes on Jan. 21, 1968 with a mission to assassinate President Park Chung Hee.
While explaining his intention to not move into the isolated Blue House, President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol said, “Space overrules the consciousness.” Students studying for the bar exam do not confine themselves to a tiny one-room apartment called a goshiwon because they do not have a decent place to study. Even without a religious faith, one becomes solemn in a holy church.
Space can be a necessary condition for communication but cannot guarantee good communication. Even though former president Rhee was happy to stop and wave at school kids, few would agree he was a communicative president. The leader was entirely cut off from the general public. Just because President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol is moving into a humbler office, lowering the walls around the building and allowing public access to a nearby park will not necessarily ensure a president who is well connected with the people.
Yoon prefers to speak directly to the press. While announcing the relocation of the presidential office, he briefed the press and took questions instead of reading from a script. He did not shy away from uncomfortable questions. If a press room is situated on the first floor of the National Defense Ministry building, which would be yielded to the presidential office, the president and his staff would be more exposed to the media. The president could stop by the press room on his way to his office as is the case in the White House. The presidential itinerary and schedule could be more transparent. Also, there could be fewer secret visits to the presidential office by Yoon’s confidantes.
In a press conference held Sunday at the office of his transition team in Samcheong-dong near the Blue House, President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol explains his plan to relocate the presidential office to the Ministry of National Defense building before he is sworn in on May 10. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
The media is certainly an important means of communication. But it is not everything. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press conferences often stretch beyond six hours. He can talk for hours without a script. But Putin cannot be considered a great communicator. He addresses the press mainly to express his thoughts. He could assume complaints and concerns from the tone of questions from reporters, but that is not real communication.
Communication must be two-way. Before trying to persuade others, it is more important to hear the voice of others. Effective communication and leadership rely on the latter. Keeping dialogue amongst themselves and patting themselves on the back cannot lead to full communication. Humans have one tongue, but two ears. One must not speak two different things at the same time, but the ears must always be open to hear different and opposing views. Yoon’s relocation plan is somewhat regrettable. His aides claim the project will help enhance presidential communication. But whether Yoon was really communicative in reaching the decision is arguable.
As the president-elect says, there are things that cannot be achieved without a strong push. Still, the relocation plan might have drawn greater support if he paid heed to opposing views and taken more time to explain and persuade the public of the virtues of the plan.
The president has a duty to communicate his decision-making. Leadership in communication and decision-making do not have to be contradictory. A good president must have the ability to balance the two.