Negotiation Mastery Blog

Leadership Lessons from North Korea

Leadership Lessons from North Korea 

So I have just come back from a week’s holiday in North Korea and learnt a lot about leadership and management.

I’m sure your eyebrows are raised at this point so I’ll just get a few things straight to start off: I’m not a raving commie and I’m certainly not recommending centralised economies and 5 year plans. I simply went there on holiday because I like going to “different” places and the DPRK is certainly that. A whole alternative universe, I can tell you. And while I was there it triggered a few thoughts relevant to business and organisations.

(By the way, this is a longer post than normal. If you want to, you can go straight to the leadership lessons but keep reading if you want to know a little bit more about the country).

What I “knew” about North Korea

Now I dont know what you know about North Korea. Before my trip, to be honest, I didnt know a lot. But I knew a few things and I will tell you what I knew.

I “knew”:

–          it was one of the last communist planned economies in the world

–          it was a complete economic basket-case

–          it was a military state and slightly random in its behaviour; we would have to be  very careful how we behaved lest we end up making apologies on to the nation on tv and spending 25 years in a re-education camp

–          the cities were grim, run-down and industrial

–          the people were probably unhappy and oppressed, certainly brain-washed

–          the countryside may well be beautiful

–          the food is probably appalling.

And in reality?

So what was it like in reality? Well, the people were tremendously sweet, the countryside pretty stunning and the buddhist temples inspiring. Perhaps more surprisingly, our hotel was very comfortable indeed and the food consistently delicious.

Much more eye-opening though was that by-and-large the country ‘worked’. That was not something I ‘knew’, that was something ‘new’.

The people seemed well-fed, everybody was housed, the standard of clothing was high. Overall the level of poverty was far less than India, Africa and large parts of South and Central America. Most of all, you could see that the people were mostly happy and proud of their country. If there is one single indicator that denotes a country’s success, it would be this measurement for me. And here they scored as high as any country I have been to. Well done, DPRK!

And this despite the challenges they have faced: the collapse of their natural trading partners in the Communist bloc, trade sanctions and isolation from the rest of the world, several years disastrous crop failure back in the mid-to-late 1990’s and being in a cold war with the most powerful country in the world for over 60 years.

Bloody well done, DPRK!

But more than that, there were even areas of the economy and culture where the country excelled. Like the architecture, for example. The buildings were quite incredible. No Eastern Europe monolithic blocks here. Whether we are talking futuristic Flash Gordon edifices or traditional pagodas or modernist grand stadia, there were so many buildings that simply made your jaw-drop.

And the mass games. Oh my god, the mass games! What an incredible spectacle that out-spectacled any other spectacle I have ever seen by a factor of 10. 120,000 performers! Dancers, acrobats, aerial artists and 80,000 children holding coloured books to make 80,000 pixels in incredibly beautiful, massive and detailed scenes. When you zoomed in, each dancer was tremendously talented and there were 40,000 of them! And how on earth do you choreograph them?! It was precise, gigantic, surreal and consistently mind-blowing.

The DPRK lives in a parallel universe. It plays by different rules. In the west, we work to buy food , clothes and shelter. And after probably one day per week, we have enough for these. We then continue to work long hours in order to buy Louis Vuitton bags, lager and cable tv. In the DPRK, they work to buy food, clothes and shelter, too. And then their surplus time and production capacity goes to build amazing buildings and awesome cultural spectaculars and sport.

It’s impossible to  tell, of course, but their society seemed pretty much crime-free. Children played happily in gangs without an adult around, try explaining school run traffic jams to them. 

And the propaganda and brain-washing? Yes, they have photos and statues of their President, Kim Il Sung, everywhere but they do genuinely love him. Like Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, he is so demonised in the West that we find it difficult to believe that in his country he is loved very much.

And there are twee slogans everywhere like “Love your nation” and “Work hard for the harmony of Korea” but how much better that than the slogans we are bombarded with: “Live life, buy BMW”, or adverts where the message is really “you are inadequate because you can’t afford this product or have a body like this”.

So it really is an alternative universe, the rules and the criteria are different. Of course, a lot of it is dysfunctional but it seemed to me more of it was functional than not. And isn’t that the best we can say for our society anyway?

Leadership Lessons

So what were my leadership lessons from all of this then?

Well, I think it was all about the question: what do we actually “know”? Before I visited it, I “knew” certain things about it, the same as everyone else. And yet when I saw it first-hand, I found things to be quite different than I had imagined.

Of course, how can I be sure that what I saw was representative and not just a show for the tourists? Well, guess what, I can’t. Which is even more reason to question thoroughly what we “know”.

And it made me view my own society slightly differently, because now I have a reference point from outside of it. So,  again, things I “knew” before, now I am not so sure about.

And what does this have to do with leadership? Well, many things. Firstly, leaders are prepared to question what everyone else “knows”. People used to “know” the earth was at the centre of the universe, Copernicus questioned this and his measurements showed the earth travels around the sun. Leadership and breakthroughs rely on questioning what everyone “knows”.

The second thing is that leaders check for themselves and rely on real evidence and raw data rather than the chinese whispers of a second-rate interpretation of a third-rate observation from a …

Go to the source. See for yourself. Then draw your own conclusions.

The world is built on many, many certainties. Some of these are not as certain as they appear. The change, the breakthroughs the world needs will come from a leadership that questions them and draws their own conclusions from the real evidence.