Speech: Leadership

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On Leadership
Speech to the students and faculty
of the Korean Minjok Leadership Academy (2003)

In a movie called The Emerald Forest, a businessman asks the chief of a rain forest tribe to force a young man to do something the young man doesn’t want to do. After all, the businessman says, you are the chief. The chief replies – “If I ask a man to do something he doesn’t want to do, I will no longer be the chief.”

Follow to lead

There are many lessons of leadership, but this is the first and most important: people always do what they want. If we force them to do what they do not want to do, we cannot really lead them. The greatest businessman, the greatest politician, the greatest general – knows that to lead he must first follow. The businessman must serve his customers, the politician must serve those who elect him, the general must win the loyalty of his men.

Teachers who would rule

There have been teachers who wanted to rule kings.

Confucius (Kong-Ja or Kung Chiu) was perhaps the greatest teacher who ever lived, but when he was my age he was powerless and for 13 years he lived outside his home country.

Socrates was a wise teacher, and his teachings are still studied by millions – but Socrates was executed by his government for his teaching.

Aristotle was the West’s greatest teacher for more than a thousand years, but these were called the Dark Ages. His most famous student was Alexander the Great, who gained fame above all for the number of people he killed, robbed, and – oh, yes, the word is “conquered” -- in Europe, Asia, and Africa. He died young.

Teachers like Kung Chiu, Socrates, and Aristotle were so wise that they continue to teach us more than 2,000 years after their deaths, but so unskilled that they could not successfully guide the leaders of their own times.

Rulers who would teach

Just as there have been teachers who would be kings, there have been kings who would be teachers.

The philosopher Seneca virtually ruled Rome for five years and they were said to be some of the best years of the Roman Empire. His student was the Roman Emperor Nero, who eventually took charge of the empire, had his mother beaten to death, his first wife beheaded, and then kicked his pregnant second wife to death. Nero called Seneca a traitor, and Seneca killed himself. Rome called Nero a traitor and Nero killed himself. He was 30 years old.

Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome and a notable philosopher. His very simple book, Meditations, is a valuable guide even today. He wrote: “We should not, like children who learn from their parents, simply act and speak as we have been taught." He meant we should place reason above tradition. His son, Commodus, did not honor tradition and he did not follow reason. Unlike his father, he was immoral and despised. He was murdered, with the help of his mistress, when he was 31.

Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were two of the greatest rulers and philosophers of ancient Rome, but Rome’s decline and fall were also part of their legacy. Rulers are not always the best examples.


If we wish to succeed in life, if we wish to lead the world, we must know that mankind learns by failure. The great American inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, failed in school and quit. He failed tens of thousands of times as an inventor, but he also created a thousand inventions.

Failure is part of the price of success when we try new things, but leaders who fail to learn from the past are dangerous, for their failures will injure all who follow them. So leaders must work constantly to learn, so they will not fail unnecessarily.



Knowledge is the most important tool for a leader. An American humorist once said, "It is better to know nothing – than to know what ain't so." My guess is that you are pretty certain of three things that “ain’t so.”

First, you have been told that you are children. You believe it. In English, we use the word “puberty” for the change that allows us to make babies. The word in Latin means “adult.” You aren’t children, you ARE adults.

Second, you think you are young. Yet if you accept modern science and trace your life back to its very beginning, you will find you are the result of an unbroken chain of life that goes back perhaps three and a half billion years. You are not young, neither am I. We are all three and a half billion years old.

Finally, you may think those of us who have many years of education and experience are your superiors. That’s not quite right. If you believe in evolution, then it seems likely that you are more evolved than we are – you, in fact, are the crown of creation, the highest form of life on the planet. We, your elders, are almost certainly your inferiors.


If this is true, why should you follow the advice of our beloved Deputy Headmaster and practice hyo? You are our superiors, you are adults, we are really the same age.

Ask about life here 40 years ago, when there was hunger in Korea. Ask about life here 50 years ago, when there was war in Korea. Ask about life here 60 or 70 or 80 or 90 years ago, when the Korean people suffered under the rule of Japan. Your fathers and grandfathers gave their lives to build the Korea they now hold in trust for you: without foreign rule, without war, without hunger.

Be aware and be truly thankful to your fathers and mothers, the teachers and leaders of Korea who made this country possible.



Pak Ha Shik reminded us of hyo – our obligation of respect and reverence toward elders, parents, teachers, and leaders. I want to remind you about an equally important obligation of hyo – the duty WE owe YOU: the duty of older people to younger, of parents to children, of teachers to students, of leaders to the people they lead. For hyo as an ideal of behavior requires absolute balance. If our elders do not guide us with love and wisdom, they lose our respect. If our teachers do not help us to learn, we cannot follow them. If our parents do not make our future and our welfare their highest priority, they have forgotten how to be parents. If our leaders do not dedicate themselves to the well-being of those they lead, they will not have our loyal support. Hyo, to use an American phrase, is a two-way street. We live, not for ourselves, for we are certain to die. We live to help our children, you and your children. We all know how life works.


Hyo is a great tradition. If we forget such traditions, we will lose our way in the universe and we must wander until we can find it again. If we forget the past, we must learn again by experience and by failure what our parents and grandparents already learned.

For this reason, a leader loves tradition. But honoring tradition does not mean acting as people did in the past. It means knowing what was done and what was the result – good or bad. Slavery was a Korean and an American tradition. Human sacrifice was a tradition in Britain and in many places around the world. Such traditions are dead and buried.

We must honor traditions, but we must let go of practices that no longer serve us. We are evolving. We are becoming smarter and wiser. A great leader preserves those traditions that are clearly worth preserving, and abandons the rest.



A leader must let go of many traditions, because there is only one thing in the universe that a leader cannot avoid: Change.

Sitting here, we may think we are not moving at all, but we should know better. The earth’s surface spins us at a speed of more than a thousand kilometers an hour. We travel around the sun at more than 50,000 kilometers an hour. The sun moves us through the galaxy, the galaxy moves us through the universe. We cannot sit still. If we could stop moving, we would be crushed by the walls or floor or ceiling. The universe will not stop for us.

The leader knows we must change, and knows we have the power and wisdom to change as we wish, if we are willing to use it. If we are not willing to change, we will be forced to change anyway. You will change, I will change, KMLA will change. THAT is certain.


War or Peace?

In the end, every leader is asked “Shall we have War or Peace?”

I think only a fool has trouble answering this question. From Peace, from Cooperation, flows everything that benefits life – trade, wealth, harmony, and happiness. From War follows isolation, poverty, division, and misery.

Of course, people know that. Yet we forget that when we criticize, we are preparing for War. When we argue, we are ready for War. When we do not work together in the closest cooperation, we have chosen War.

A leader wins by avoiding conflict and by seeking cooperation. The great Chinese Master of War, Sun-Tzu, wrote that the greatest general uses superior knowledge and wins without ever fighting. So, by winning without fighting, a leader sets a good example for others. Or, by fighting without winning, he becomes an example of what we should avoid. Buddha was a leader. So was Hitler.

As Lao-tse, No-Ja, taught, the greatest ruler isn’t known by the wars he has won, because when he ruled, there was peace. People don’t think he did very much. They are sure they did everything themselves.

Someday, if you remember me, I hope you will say: “he was a teacher at KMLA, but he didn’t do much. We learned everything on our own.” If you can say that, I will have been a leader. And if you learn – on your own – you, too, will be leaders.