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[Kim Seong-kon] Appointing the right people in Cabinet

Critics have argued that Korean presidents all have one serious flaw in common: They fill government posts with people from their own political faction or election camp only, regardless of their abilities. As a result, amateurs have run the country, making numerous, sometimes fatal mistakes.

Of course, there have been some outstanding, competent ministers. However, they often could not extend their abilities to their full capacity, blocked by a bunch of amateurs who wielded political power surrounding the president. If our presidents had appointed truly capable people to their Cabinet, South Korea would have been a much more advanced nation today.

A great leader should have a vision for the future, not a fixation on grudges about the past. Someone who is too preoccupied with past grievances can never become a great leader. More importantly, a great leader should transcend the gravity of his or her own faction, embracing a “rainbow coalition” of different people. Therefore, a great leader is the one who can appoint capable people to important posts, regardless of their political stance. Someone once said that if a leader finds an able person, but does not appoint them, that leader is not a good leader. Moreover, if a leader appoints an able person, but does not listen to them, that leader too is not a good leader.

Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, offered sound advice for all leaders when he said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Likewise, the president of a country should also appoint smart, capable men and women, listen to them and support them. Indeed, that is precisely what a great leader would do.

To the leader who does not like smart people and favors flattering, incompetent people instead, David Ogilvy, Founder of Ogilvy and Mather, has this to say: “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” A nation’s leader, too, can turn his or her country into a place of dwarfs, if he or she does not appoint smart, competent people.

To the leader who only likes one’s own kind from one’s own faction, Honda Soichiro of Honda Motor Co. admonished, “If you hire only those people you understand, the company will never get people better than you are. Always remember that you often find outstanding people among those you don’t particularly like.” That is why a great leader should not hesitate to appoint capable people to the Cabinet, even if they are not “one of our own.”

In a sense, the president of a country is like the president of a company. Both should have competent staff members in order to make their institutions flourish. The only difference between the two is that unlike a company president, a nation’s president should be diplomatic and embrace even political dissidents. If the president of a nation wants to work with ideological followers, school friends or hometown associates only, he or she cannot become a great leader and will ruin the country consequently.

At Seoul National University, I led three major institutions for eight years. At each institution, I appointed truly able specialists to help me run the institutions successfully. In fact, it was I who helped them work freely to the full because they, not I, were the experts in their fields. Thanks to the extremely competent experts I had appointed, my institutions thrived as among the best SNU institutions.

However, problems occurred when the administrative assistant, whom the university appointed, worked clumsily. For example, once my administrative assistant reported to me that since we needed more space, we should close down the big office for emeritus professors. As I just took the office and did not know the situation well enough, I consented without giving it much thought.

Alas! That was a bad idea and a fatal mistake.

You never disappoint or maltreat emeritus professors under any circumstance; they deserve our full respect and esteem. Unfortunately, however, I was too young to know it and, unwittingly, I became the target of harsh criticism due to the thoughtless administrative assistant. At that time, I came to realize how important it was to have smart, thoughtful staff members.

Recently, Koreans are concerned about the people dividing into the two main competing presidential election camps. If the newly elected president follows the footsteps of predecessors and appoints these partisans to important government posts despite their ineptitude and incompetence, South Korea will never be able to put an end to the evil cycle of nepotism. Then, amateurs will ruin the country once again.

We strongly hope that our new president finds and appoints truly capable professionals to his or her Cabinet and secretariat, regardless of their political background. Only then can South Korea be on the right track and prosperous.


By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.
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