A Korean Leadership Lesson

The two Koreas worked through mistrust this week with skills 'they don't teach you in school,' says one Korn Ferry expert.

North Korea and South Korea have every reason to distrust one another—they are technically still at war. But this week the two foes showed leaders around the world how to work with people you don’t trust. 

The two countries agreed to resume cross-border military communications and let athletes from the North compete at the upcoming Winter Olympics in the South. It didn’t solve all the countries’ issues, but it reveal how some key but not sharply defined skills of leadership can lead negotiations between two distrusting sides. “This is the stuff they don’t teach you in school,” says Benjamin Frost, the London-based general manager of reward products for Korn Ferry. “This is about soft skills and empathy.”

Though the Koreas are extreme, working with someone or some organization that you don’t trust isn’t something that governments or businesses can easily avoid, experts say. Quite the contrary, it is something that is increasingly likely to happen. Leadership in the global economy is going to bring together executives who will have different value systems, different motivations, and potentially different intentions. 

Leaders must make an effort to understand the motivations of the other parties involved and comprehending what will push the right buttons to get the job done. “South Korea would be foolish if they said, ‘I trust you’ but there won’t be a breakthrough unless the people step down from the proverbial high horse,” says Frost. That’s where US President Ronald Reagan’s famous line “trust but verify” can come in handy. “The trust part of ‘trust but verify’ is that I don’t trust you, but I have to pretend that I trust you,” says Frost. “The 'verify' is how I check up on things.”

Some of that means behaving in ways the senior leaders often don’t do. “If the prize is worth it then you have to check your ego,” says Frost. In the case of the Koreas, avoiding all-out war is the obvious prize. For business, it may involve entry into a long sought-after market that has previously eluded the company. In such situations, overt moral indignation or obvious disdain will only make the situation worse. You need to keep talking and leave the door ajar to allow both sides to walk away with something that looks like a victory, says Frost. In the simplest terms, both sides need to save face

It’s also worth remembering that working together with another party might be defined by time or defined by goals. In the latter case, the ongoing negotiations between Britain and the European Union over Brexit are a useful example of the benefits of understanding the other side’s point of view. “The EU negotiators know that British Prime Minister Theresa May needs to return from the regular talks with certain things or the Daily Mail and Daily Express newspapers will roast her,” he says. “They know she needs to come back to London and tell the British people that she won.” By allowing that to happen, the talks can keep on going in a productive manner.