Leadership Under Fire?

Jim Freedman
Vice President, Leadership Development
Fresenius Medical Care - North America

The Great Challenge for Leadership Development

It is no secret today that leaders attract more scrutiny than respect. We want to believe in our leaders, but we have been disappointed so many times. Our relationships with our leaders are not strong. Business, religious, military, and sports leaders have risen and fallen on a fairly regular basis. Yet, we still want someone in whom to place our trust. Like re-marriage, recovering belief in our leaders may be the triumph of hope over experience. A Zen proverb says that when the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear. Maybe this holds true for leaders as well.

In an age of borderless economies and nationless armies, we urgently need to re-examine the concept of leadership and redefine the role to one that is consistent with our current and future needs. We need to carefully examine models of leadership development to discover what might help us cultivate a working model. Scholars regularly urge us to look to ages when certain men and women stood out from the masses and led us to new places, new ideas, and new heights beyond our imaginations. Churchill, Patton, Alexander, Elizabeth, Indira, Golda, and Eleanor have taken on mythic proportions in our relatively recent histories. We can learn much about our cultures and ourselves when we seek to understand whom we choose to follow. In a time of great need, we may need to look at leaders outside our time and our culture, outside our box, so that we can stretch our concept of leadership and leadership development.

An Instructive Example From the Past

One such example of a leader little known outside of his home country, Korea, is Admiral Yi, Sun-Shin of Korea. Historians know him as the architect of one of the greatest naval victories ever recorded. Admiral Yi lead an outnumbered Korean navy to a series of victories over an immense Japanese invasion force led by the more well-known Japanese Admiral Hideyoshi. Yi?s successive victories over Japanese invaders from 1592-1598 are of an historic proportion equal to the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English in 1588. Any visitor to Korea will have seen Yi?s statue in the middle of downtown Seoul, and any Korean child can relate the tale of this great admiral with ease and pride. While we in the West know of the great Khans from the Mongolian empire, and several other great teachers and leaders from Asia, we are generally ignorant of the accomplishments of this sea-going hero.

There are leadership lessons to be learned from this Korean David and how he defeated the Goliath of Hideyoshi?s Japanese navy. How did this virtually unknown leader of a provincial coast guard set out against one of the greatest navies in the world and lead a campaign over the next six years that would turn back the tide of Japanese invaders? What can we learn from this man?s life that we can apply to our concept of leadership and leadership development today? Fortunately, Admiral Yi kept unusually detailed records of this period in his diaries and in his reports to the court of Korea. In addition, there is objective historical evidence to reinforce his personal account.

According to Korean historian Yoon Ha Lee, Admiral Yi lived in a time when military prowess was not respected. Korea?s aristocracy of that era followed a neo-Confucian ethic that favored scholarship, poetry and philosophy. Thus, the prominent military leaders of the time were required to be scholars as well as soldiers. Wu-Tzu, a Chinese scholar who wrote about leadership, said that a commanding general must combine both military and civilian abilities and unite ?both hardness and softness.? We have strong evidence that Admiral Yi was a leader developed in this tradition.

We need to understand something of the historical context of Yi to better understand the man. Around 1590, Hideyoshi, the Japanese Shogun, united all feudal Japan under his control. Nevertheless, the feudal barons and samurai who had fought each other bitterly in civil wars for over a hundred years were not entirely supportive of the new Shogun. As a unifying process to solidify his control of the Japanese empire, Hideyoshi conceived a plan to invade and conquer China, then under the control of the Ming Dynasty. He first sought the cooperation of Korea in this venture. When King Songjo of Korea rejected this plan, Shogun Hideyoshi decided to mount an attack on China through Korea anyway. Hideyoshi gathered a fleet and an army and in 1592, he landed 800 ships at Pusan, a harbor city on the southeastern coast of Korea, and within 20 days advanced over 200 miles to Seoul.

At this time, the Korean Navy was mainly a coastal defense force. Admiral Yi, stationed at that time in Yosu, a small naval base along the southern coast of Korea, quickly assembled and led a group of 80 small coastal ships to Pusan. Outnumbered 10 to 1 by the Japanese armada, he proceeded to establish a base on a small coastal island known as Hansando and led a series of daring assaults on Japanese ships passing in and out of Pusan. In his first encounter with the Japanese fleet, he sank 26 ships without losing one of his own. Thereafter, in the period from 1592-1598, he is reported to have won 17 out of 18 naval engagements with the Japanese and almost single-handedly turned back not one, but two Japanese invasions. No one, except possibly Yi, believed at first that the Japanese invasion could be stopped.

Leading Achievement Against the Odds: The Crucial Factors

In almost every encounter, Yi faced an enemy with an overwhelming advantage in numbers of men and ships. In one of his last great battles, known in Korea as the Miracle of Myongnyang, he led 12 of his boats against 300 Japanese ships and destroyed 133. George Hagerman, a noted US naval historian, wrote that because of Admiral Yi?s exploits, the invasion of China by the Japanese was held back for almost three hundred years.

It is clear from analysis of historical record that Admiral Yi had four main advantages that he used to leverage his outnumbered force. First, he had a technological advantage in that he was using a highly maneuverable ship known as the Kobukson or Turtle Boat that had been built strictly for coastal defense. This ship was ideally suited to patrolling the coast of Korea and warding off random pirate attacks. It was a flat-bottomed, highly stable ship, propelled by oars, with an armored deck like the shell of a turtle. The ?turtle boats? carried 26 cannon of various sizes, and had smoke generators that not only masked their movements, but also frightened superstitious enemies. The boats had never been used in large-scale, open water naval battles. The Japanese navy used slower, ocean-going sailing ships with only a few cannon, and some equipped with catapults. They were designed primarily for transporting armies and open-water battles.

Second, Yi had an information advantage. He knew the coast of Korea and its surrounding waters, islands, winds, and currents. Throughout his naval campaigns, Yi was consistently able to exploit that knowledge. In numerous battles, he lured Japanese enemy ships into unfavorable, shallow, coastal waters so he could employ his turtle boats to better advantage. In addition, he is reported to have used coast watchers from the local Korean village population to gather and relay valuable information about the movements of the Japanese ships. This allowed him to anticipate and be ready in wait when the invaders would be most exposed.

Third, Yi had a tactical advantage in that he routinely changed not only the battlefield from the open ocean to the shallow coastal waters, but he also rewrote the conventional the rules of naval battle. Most naval battles before this time had been fought by the tactic of closing in on and boarding enemy ships. And the ships had been designed for just such engagements. With the speed, maneuverability, and superior firepower of the turtle boat, Yi was able to develop and execute a new style of ?run and gun? battle plan that confounded an enemy built and prepared to fight in traditional battle formation. His use of the ?crane wing? battle formation was one of the first recorded uses of the inverted ?V? or flying wedge attack plan.

Finally, Yi had an intellectual advantage over his enemy. He was a scholar and a poet as well as a military leader. Advancement in the military of the time required passing rigorous national exams. Yi, because of the neo-Confucian tradition, had been required to master a broad body of knowledge including classical literature as well as military strategy and history. From his diary, we know that he studied and quoted Sun Tzu?s Art of War. He wrote poetry that is still known and studied in Korean classrooms. In addition, we know that in 1576, when he passed his military exam, he demonstrated the ability to learn to analyze and synthesize general knowledge and apply it to local problems. It is clear from Yi?s diary that, as the Japanese invasion progressed from 1592 to 1598, he was able to quickly learn and develop new and increasingly complex battle tactics to engage and confound an enemy of vastly superior numbers. Yi continually adjusted and adapted his own plans in response to any advancement in tactics within the invading forces.

In addition to everything else, historical record shows us that Admiral Yi mastered the art of politics. By some definitions, fighting an external enemy is warfare while fighting an internal enemy is politics. Yi?s early success attracted not only praise, but also jealousy from within the military ranks and from the Korean court. For a time, he was demoted to the lower ranks of Korea?s naval forces. After several significant defeats of the Korean navy by the Japanese during his absence, Yi was quickly reinstated to regain control and rebuild the navy. In addition, it has been said that soldiers win battles, but logistics wins wars. From his writing, we know that he was adept at assuring that his navy was fed and supplied through his ability to work closely with local populations and rulers. Clearly, Yi?s expertise crossed over into many critical competencies.

So what critical lessons can we learn from studying the achievements of Admiral Yi to help us understand what is needed to be an effective leader today? Having technological, tactical, informational, and intellectual assets as a basis for success is not new information. Historical record shows that Yi not only had the assets to be used, he learned to exploit those advantages in an unprecedented fashion. Yi did not invent the turtle boat, but learned its advantages and applied them under fire. The information that he used to gain advantage over his enemy was available to anyone. The tactics he applied under fire to defeat the Japanese invading force were learned originally from the study of classical military literature, studied by all military leaders, including the Japanese invaders. From his diaries, we know Yi continually refined and developed new tactics by studying both his successes and failures under fire. It is clear that his ability to continually learn, adapt, and change under extreme pressure was the foundation of his victorious campaigns.

Lessons from The Admirable Admiral

What we can readily understand from the achievements of Admiral Yi, Sun-shin is that even though leaders may be equally educated, their ability to apply what they have learned is that which makes them truly great. Moreover, the ability to apply that learning under fire when the costs are high and consequences are dire may be the most critical and only true test of leadership.

Could it be that without the ?fire,? however that may be defined, there is no way to know who our great leaders really are? If this is true, then the real test of leadership development has to be how we challenge potential leaders to perform in ?under fire? situations. Simulations, role-plays, graduated job assignments and rotations, and other incrementally difficult and increasingly complex tasks may be the only way to gain insight into the development of innate leadership potential. Every military branch and every sport has some version of the scrimmage, a term used to describe an opportunity to practice under simulated real game or war conditions. Many organizations, where public safety and lives are at risk during the regular performance of their duties, use a graduated series of desk top scenarios as well as simulations to test practice, process, and people. A number of the above-mentioned groups use a variation of the ?crucible,? a final test of sorts, using a set of circumstances where people are subjected to forces that take them to and beyond their perceived limits, to attempt to identify not only high potential, but high performance.

In the coming years, in the increasingly complex US and international business environments, we cannot afford to limit whom we recognize as leaders to ex-military, ex-athletes, or others who have been in real harm?s way. While their skills may be transferable to organizational life, those skills were honed to meet other challenges. The primary mandate for business and organizational leadership development then is to find ways for every discipline and organization to establish its own version of the ?crucible? to test and thereby reveal the true mettle of its potential leaders. We need to define and redefine what ?under fire? means to our own organizations, and then use that knowledge to define high performance under fire. We in the West have our own variation of the previously mentioned Zen quotation. Ours goes something like this: ?Crisis does not build leaders, it reveals them.?

Editor's Note: Jim Freedman is a long time friend of philosophy who understands the relevance of the great ideas, and great people, of the past to our challenges of the present, and on into the future. He exemplifies creative and thoughtful leadership, in search of ever deeper wisdom, within the contexts of an exciting business that does great good in the world.

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