In South Korea, a triumph for talent in successions

The head of scandal-hit Samsung vows an end to family dynasty, helping the country to favor merit over bloodlines in business and politics.

Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman, Jay Y. Lee, apologies for past misdeeds during a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, May 6.

For decades, South Koreans have tried to shed a cultural belief that a person’s destiny in business or politics is determined by bloodlines rather than merit. Laws have been passed to discourage nepotism. Politicians promise reforms against family favoritism in university admissions. On Wednesday, these efforts were rewarded when the head of Samsung, the nation’s largest business group, vowed on national TV not to allow his children to take over the company.

Lee Jae-yong, whose conglomerate was founded by his grandfather, even admitted that recent scandals that have engulfed his company – he spent more than two years in prison on bribery charges – were caused by attempts to ensure family succession within Samsung.

He apologized for his misdeeds while vowing to focus on improving “corporate value” – relying on professional managers – rather than seeking favors for kin.

The vow was perhaps self-serving. Mr. Lee faces more jail time as a court determines his future. Yet the Korean press welcomed the move by a company that is the world’s largest maker of smartphones and other electronics. “Other family-run business groups with similar problems,” wrote The Korea Herald, “ought to use the incident as an occasion for self-awakening.”

Family-run businesses are the bulk of businesses worldwide with many failing by the second or third generation. Most fail out of family rivalry or greed but also out of the notion that one’s gene pool is the best talent pool. Such a belief denies the worth of others in the company who might bring better qualities and experience. “Power is never a good, unless he be good that has it,” said King Alfred the Great.

Mr. Lee’s apparent enlightenment went beyond an acceptance of “best-level management,” as he called it, and a rejection of birthright as privilege. “Samsung has to hire proven personnel regardless of sex, education level, and nationality,” he said.

In South Korea, social class is more closely tied to that of one’s parents than in other developed countries, according to a 2018 study. Partly this is due to a perception that personal traits are inherited. Breaking this belief requires a country to accept that each individual has unique talents and the ability to flourish.

Mr. Lee says he will be the last of his family to lead Samsung. He may be the first to assert in public that personal destiny should not depend on one’s genetic lineage.

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