Management Lessons From Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong-il, the iconoclastic dictator of North Korea, passed away this week at the age of 69.  The press has had a field day, recounting tales of the cartoonish Kim that are one part pure evil and one part absurdity.  For 19 years, Kim ruled over the most repressive and reclusive society in the world.  The recently deceased author Christopher Hitchens compared North Korea to the totalitarian society described in the novel 1984.  He quipped, it was as if Kim’s father, Kim Il-Sung had read it and decided (“Hmmm … good book. Let’s see if we can make it work.”)

The atrocities and repression attributed to Kim Jong-il are well documented.  Despite the fact that it is one of the most secretive societies in the world, the testimony of defectors paints a consistent and horrifying picture.  It is a society in which the state controls every aspect of its citizens lives.  There is no free press and zero toleration of dissent.  An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people have been sent to political prison camps and subjected to inhuman conditions.  Forced labor, torture, “reeducation programs” and stunning mortality rates are the components of daily prison life.

Those not in prison also lead a bleak existence.  Nobody is allowed to leave the country, and travel within the country is tightly controlled by the government.  In 2007, a man convicted of making international phone calls was reportedly executed in front of a packed stadium.  These public executions are part of an ongoing campaign of terror by the government to ensure total compliance from its subjects.  Even something as routine as a loss by a national sports team is reason for punishment and humiliation.  It was reported that after the poor performance by North Korea at the 2010 World Cup, the team was forced to stand onstage for 6 hours while they were publicly berated by an audience of 400 party members.

An all consuming paranoia has led North Korea to be one of the most militarized states in the world.  Their constant sabre rattling, dishonest diplomacy and terrorist acts have made them a world pariah.  The money they don’t spend on the military is devoted to outrageous public monuments and supporting an inner circle of party elites.  The failed policies of this centrally planned economy has led to an archaic infrastructure, pathetic agricultural yields and minimal global trade.  This, in turn has resulted in ongoing famines, with an estimated 2 million people perishing.

As if this horror and suffering isn’t enough, it’s set against a surreal backdrop where Kim has been a revered God-like figure.  In fact, some of the claims of his powers are so bizarre that they are hard to discern from satirical pieces written in The Onion.  Among the insane claims was that he wrote 1,500 books and six full operas while studying for three years in college.  It was also claimed that he could change the weather, bowled a perfect 300 in his first game and shot a 34 in his first round of golf.  This week, the official state news agency, KCNA, attributed unusual weather events to his death.  Nature was apparently mourning the Dear Leader’s passing through a loud cracking of ice on a lake near his birthplace.

It’s hard for any rational person living outside the madness of North Korea to not recognize the evil and absurd leadership of the Kim family dynasty.  North Korea represents a living laboratory showing the horrific effects of totalitarian rule.  But is there a more subtle lesson here about leadership in general?  Are some of the practices in place in corporations oddly reminiscent of those found in authoritarian regimes?

Before answering those questions, I want to make a quick disclaimer.  The last thing I want to do is trivialize the suffering and death of millions.  There is nothing that takes place in modern Western corporations that equals the hardships experienced by those in North Korea.  That said, I believe it’s instructive to look at extreme examples of poor behaviors.  By doing this, one can frequently make associations and analogies to less severe, but still counterproductive practices.

So, before dismissing the notion that your firm/department/team can learn from Kim Jong-il, answer the following questions:

Does your organization foster a climate of collaborative decision making?

Is input honestly solicited from rank and file employees on key goals, strategies and direction?  Alternatively, are decisions made independently and opaquely by the most senior members of the organization?

Is authority distributed as far as practical?

Is authority commensurate with responsibility?  Does the organization use a model such as Netflix’s  to ensure that only the most “life threatening” decisions are not distributed?

Does your organization encourage diverse thinking styles?

Does it recognize that innovation, adaptability and excellence are ultimately fueled by a mix of varying viewpoints and ideologies?  Alternatively, does it encourage a culture of copycat thinking, sychophants, and yes men?

Does your organization hold everyone, irrespective of position,  to a basic set of norms regarding behaviors, ethics, rules and policies?

Alternatively, are there special rules and perks for the powerful?  Are such behaviors as rudeness and abusiveness excused for those in power?

Are employees comfortable disagreeing with or criticizing (professionally) their leaders?

Are people encouraged to offer constructive criticism?  Alternatively, are they scared of retribution for offending a leader?  Is there a “faux open door policy” that nobody is comfortable utilizing?

Is the leadership of your organization comfortable with openly admitting errors?

Alternatively, is there a need to rationalize and justify bad decisions to save face?

Does your organization accept that people are fallible and will make honest mistakes?

Does it differentiate between human error and willful policy violations?  Does it tend to look for scapegoats and assign blame?  Does it encourage sensible risk taking and understand the tie-in between taking chances and innovative breakthroughs?

Is recruitment and promotion handled in an open and collaborative fashion, with a goal of high performance, fairness and diversity?

Alternatively is it driven by nepotism, cronyism and power brokering?

It’s comforting to look at extreme examples of dysfunction and feel better about oneself.  Like a pathetic character on a reality TV show, Kim Jong-il had us laughing and shaking our heads at his absurd behaviors.  Forward thinking leaders would be wise to put aside their feelings of superiority.  Instead, redouble your efforts to ensure that your organization reflects the progressive management ideals of inclusion, openness, fairness and excellence.


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14 Responses to Management Lessons From Kim Jong-il

  1. Sam McNerney says:

    Hey Dan,

    Nice thoughts. Here is a question I’ve been thinking about: Do you think it is immoral for the United States and other Western countries to not invade North Korea and liberate its citizens?

    • Dan says:

      Hi Sam…thanks for that challenging question. Simplistically, it does seem like the proper and moral thing to do. Unfortunately, I think there are some important reasons why it would be a bad idea. First, I don’t think we can be in the business of constantly assessing the morality of different regimes and deciding to change those we disagree with. I also think that unintended consequences loom large as a constraint. We really can’t forecast the outcome or costs for an invasion scenario. I’d prefer a strategy of pressure, containment, and if possible, encouragement of opposition groups from within. I’d rather see an internal uprising unseat Kim Jong-un.

  2. Pat Petersen says:

    Very insightful, Dan. I bet it is common to think of the other place as the bad place to work. The North Korea example, extreme as it is, is a good time for leaders to crtically look within and ask if their behaviors in any way resemble a dictatorship.

  3. Dick Davies says:

    Dan, thanks for another provocative post, creating new value from what the world gives. Happy New Year!

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