A Question of Leadership

In March, Choson Exchange sent a delegation of financial and legal professionals to Pyongyang to conduct a series of workshops on the finance concepts of Asset Liability Management and Risk Management.  The workshops took place over the course of two days, and generated good discussions about the approach to banking and finance both inside and outside the DPRK.  The anonymous feedback from the attendees generally included comments to the effect of, “this was good, but we need more”. The other major purpose for the trip was to interview candidates for certain academic opportunities abroad.  Prior to arriving in Pyongyang, we had created a shortlist of about 7 young North Korean professionals from a pool of 30 resumes.  On arriving in Pyongyang, however, an official informed me that some of the unsuccessful candidates were quite disappointed about not making the shortlist.  They very much wanted a chance to meet me in person and to be heard.

It is important to be faithful to a process, but there are very few opportunities for North Koreans to study abroad.  I agreed to meet more people, and 7 interviews quickly became 15.  This made the schedule a bit tighter, but was overall quite positive.  I met many bright and eager young people over the course of the interviews.  For those who are not successful this time, they showed themselves to be good candidates for future opportunities.

This raises the question – on what basis are candidates selected?  As a general consideration, we are looking for high achievers: intelligent and accomplished people.  We also want to ensure, as best we can, that the candidates will be able to adapt to and function in a foreign environment.  This often involves an assessment of language ability and interpersonal skills.  Most importantly, we are looking for leaders: candidates that have the capacity to lead change and to spread the knowledge that they have gained to others.

Almost every modern business interview features questions about leadership experience and ability.  The interviewer often starts with a general question about leadership experience, and then hones in on more specific aspects of leadership.

This was the approach that I took with the first few interviews.  The responses, though, were not what I was expecting:

Q: Can you please tell me a bit about some of your leadership experiences?

(uncomfortable shuffle)

A: Ah…I’m sorry, but I don’t have any.

The first time this happened, it took me back a bit.  I admired the candidate’s honesty and sincerity, but thought that he was being a bit too humble.  “But we all have leadership experiences”, I replied.   I then identified several points on the candidate’s resume that clearly involved leadership experience on his part.

I quickly began to appreciate that there is a different cultural perspective on the concept of leadership.  In many cultures, leadership is commonly viewed as a skill set more than a formal role.  It embodies the confidence and ability to lead others, regardless of having authority to do so.  From an early age, we learn that developing and being able to employ such leadership skills is a very positive attribute.

In the DPRK, the concept of leadership appears to be more associated with formal position and authority.  To describe oneself as a leader without such title is presumptuous, perhaps even mildly insubordinate.  It is not to say that young North Korean professionals do not have leadership skills.  They do – but they are reluctant to describe them as such.

In the end, every candidate was able to talk about experiences that demonstrated leadership skills.  Whatever the label, we were talking about the same thing.

This was likely one of the first formal interviews for some of the candidates, and likely the first English interview for almost all of the candidates.  Despite my attempts to make everybody feel comfortable, it must have been a somewhat nerve-racking experience.  At the same time, it was an experience that many of them had the courage to push for.  I left with no doubt about the desire of the candidates to learn things that are new, foreign and challenging to them.

I would invariably ask each candidate why he or she was interested in the opportunity.  “Because”, one candidate told me, “there is so much more that I need to learn beyond what we are currently doing.  This is the way for me to learn it”.