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North Korean Leadership Tips

By Tom Peterson

North Korean leaders recently celebrated the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung. I was privileged to see some of the monuments to his greatness when I was there in 1999 for an international nonprofit. We had gone to coordinate a shipment of breeding goats that were hand picked in France and flown in by plane.

We were put up in a “fancy” government retreat center a half hour from Pyongyang. It was a pretty setting, on the side of a mountain and facing a lake. But in this country, you’d complain about the room, for sure.

There was absolutely nothing to do in the evenings, so I asked several different staff if they had a piano I could play and was always told no. But the pause before the “no” made me wonder. Then one guy said, “Follow me.” We walked down this dark hall that went on forever. It struck me: we’re going under the mountain — a bomb shelter! Finally, he opened some double doors, and we were standing in a huge ballroom, with wood floors and a full stage with a baby grand and drums.

What foresight, I thought. In a worst case scenario, the leaders would still have live music. Because North Korean leaders are so different, we usually don’t realize how much they have to teach us. Here are a few principles:

  1. Don’t be distracted by the little people. Some feel that deep, across-the-board talent is an organization’s greatest asset. It’s actually more important to boost your leadership with a strong military or by creating an atmosphere of fear. If the leaders don’t survive, who will lead?
  2. Keep doing the things that worked really well for you in the past. The fifties and sixties were the golden age. Innovation is overrated and can lead to a coup or worse.
  3. Put on frequent extravaganzas. The Dear North Korean Leader’s 100th birthday was a great reason for a big-time public display. Excessive celebrations will remind everyone how wonderful your organization is thanks to your leadership.
  4. Don’t worry about playing well with others. Collaboration is overrated. Screw them!
  5. Show is more important than substance. Don’t waste limited resources trying to nourish and develop everyone when you can help a much smaller group at a fraction of the cost. Be sure to showcase that group, because perception is reality.
  6. Occasionally piss off the other players. Nothing like kidnapping the citizens of competitors to remind them not to cross you or to get them to do what you want.North Korean leadership tips
  7. Occasionally do something really insane. Sink a ship, test a weapon, try to sneak into Japan to see Disneyland. This keeps everyone off guard, on edge, reminds them who’s in charge.
  8. Keep a disciplined control of communications. Allowing people to freely associate and express themselves, allowing unfettered access to the internet, and so on, can undermine the authority of your leadership.
  9. Keep your plans and everything else close to the chest. Don’t give away your secrets. Once they know your intentions, you lose all power. Transparency is overrated.
  10. Perpetuate a cult of personality. Invest that little bit extra to assure the supremacy of your leadership. If people want to believe you can control the weather, let them. Those supersize military hats subtly say, “These people are really important.” Plus they’re awesome!

Amazing video: Patrik Wallner. Photo: Gilad.rom, Creative Commons

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