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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to In South Korea, a triumph for talent in successions
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today