South Korea's President Moon Jae-in may be in for a tough year. Photo: AFPDiego Opatowski
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been hit hard by the China-US trade dispute. Photo: AFP / Diego Opatowski

South Korean politicians become extremely busy during election campaigns. They take the subway, go to traditional markets and work at farms to experience the so-called seomin (서민) life, meaning the humble lifestyle of those who are not wealthy. Even the president sometimes went out and delivered meals to the underprivileged, and the mayor of Seoul went out and lived in one of the poor areas to get to know the difficulties of life there, supposedly.

Moreover, politicians try to expose their humble backgrounds on public media – regardless of authenticity – by deliberately showing old, worn-out shoes and bags. All of which is to convey the sense that they are not authoritarian, and are close to those from modest backgrounds, and thus more sympathetic than their rivals. We are just like one of you, they are trying to say. Politicians need votes, so it is not an uncommon practice. But why is this so pronounced in South Korea?

My hypothesis is that Koreans, if they have to choose between capability and friendliness, prefer people who are kind and not authoritarian on the surface, than those who are capable, whether it be a politician, entrepreneur or professional.

According to a survey conducted by Gallup Korea in the fourth week of May, 46% of the respondents expressed a positive view of President Moon Jae-in while 44% responded negatively. Of the 459 who had positive views, 16% said they did not know why they support him. In contrast, 50% of the 439 who had negative views said they did not support him because of his inability to solve economic problems.

On the positive list, other reasons for support included “puts in his best efforts” (12%), “strives for those from humble background” (4%), “communicates well” (3%), “thinks on behalf of Koreans” (3%), “open-minded” (2%), and “upright, frank and transparent” (1%). While many of these responses could be true, most of these criteria merely reflect Moon’s persona, not really his capability as the president of South Korea.

In addition, although it may not be accurate to ascribe Moon’s popularity entirely to his image, some supporters expressed that their support for him mainly stems from the fact that “his look and image are favorable.” How politicians are perceived in the eyes of the public is important. But judging someone solely on how he appears in the media and how he looks can be quite misleading.

What happened to Korean Air?

Korean Air Lines Co Ltd, operating as Korean Air, is the largest airline and flag carrier of South Korea. It belongs to the Hanjin Group and was founded by the late Cho Yang-ho. Korean Air is undoubtedly one of the world’s best airlines, but its reputation has recently been tarnished by several incidents in which members if Cho’s family bossed employees around and nitpicked their performance. Wikipedia outlined one of these incidents:

“The best-known episode was the nut rage incident, which occurred on December 5, 2014, at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Korean Air vice-president Heather Cho (Cho Hyun-ah), dissatisfied with the way a flight attendant served nuts on the plane, ordered the aircraft to return to the gate before takeoff. First-class passengers, including Cho, were given nuts bagged in their original packaging in line with the airline’s procedures, but Cho had expected them to be served on a plate in first class. She questioned the cabin-crew chief about the standard procedure of serving the nuts. After a heated confrontation, Cho assaulted him and ordered him off the plane, requiring a return to the gate and delaying the flight about 20 minutes.

“When the incident became public, Cho and Korean Air were heavily criticized, and in the aftermath, Cho resigned from one of her executive positions at Korean Air. She was subsequently found guilty in a South Korean court of obstructing aviation safety and given a 12-month prison sentence, of which she served five months. The flight attendant and cabin-crew chief returned to their positions by April 2016.”

This incident caused a huge public backlash and made Korean Air an object of mockery. After a series of further scandals and controversies, Cho Yang-ho was eventually deprived of management rights by Korea’s National Pension Service, in March 2019 just before his death in April at the age of 70.

Although it is understandable that such misbehavior tarnished Korean Air’s image and, subsequently, negatively affected its financial performance, as manifested by a decline in stock prices, it is in shareholders’ interests to decide how the company should be run and by whom. Cho Yang-ho’s achievements and capability as an entrepreneur were rarely mentioned in the media, such as his foresight in buying aircraft in advance and his management skills in overcoming some of the crises the company faced.

I am not saying all the wrongdoings of the family members should be condoned simply because the deceased CEO’s achievements were stellar. All I am saying is that evaluations of managers should have been more focused on their capability as a manager rather than being good persons.

The Apple story

On the other hand, let’s take example of Steve Jobs, the late chief executive officer and co-founder of Apple Inc. There is no need to explain his life as an entrepreneur in detail as he is a legendary figure. Among other things, he succeeded in fundamentally changing the way people perceive mobile phones, and Apple now is valued at close to US$1 trillion.

In contrast to his success as an innovator and entrepreneur, he was a very unpopular figure with his acquaintances and family. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said that “no one wanted to work under Steve Jobs ever again” as he was ruthless and controlling, driven by a desire for perfection. He also had issues with his daughter, Lisa, as he denied paternity in the early days of Apple, only to reconcile and accept paternity later.

Despite these issues, Steve Jobs was a great innovator and entrepreneur, a quality that brought him respect for his ability as the manager of Apple. Although his personal idiosyncrasies and unrefined remarks made headlines and caused some trouble, they did not interfere with his ultimate role because shareholders and management knew that he had always been the right man to lead Apple. His importance was manifested once again when the price of Apple shares declined by more than half on the night he passed away, October 5, 2011. What mattered was his capability as a manager and innovator, not his personal eccentricities and ruthlessness.

It may not be totally precise to make apple-to-apple comparisons between Korean Air and Apple, but the main idea is that one leader greatly suffered from scandals, and eventually got deprived of management rights, while the other was respected and stayed firm despite personal idiosyncrasies.

It would be icing on the cake if someone who is competent and at the same time truly caring takes up important positions in society. In reality, however, it is quite rare, because these two values often conflict. Sometimes a leader must be ruthless in implementing a long-term plan with clear vision, whereas a kind yet irresolute leader may lack the will to do so.

When it comes to choosing leaders, evaluating who is truly competent, and thus who can bring more benefits overall, is a difficult task, one that requires long-term commitment and is not easy to measure. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to judge who looks more friendly and not authoritative in the short term because it takes only minutes to judge a book by its cover.

This article is originally from Joon’s Blog.

Leave a comment