Let the Games Begin

Against the odds, South Korea has launched the Winter Games with few hitches so far. Korn Ferry’s Mike Distefano on what may end up as a remarkable feat.


In a shifting economy and corporate world, agility has become a key predictor of success—yet studies show only a fraction of the global workforce is considered highly agile. In this regular column, Michael Distefano, Korn Ferry’s chief operating officer, Asia Pacific, explores the concept of agility: who has it, who doesn’t, and what companies can do to mold it.

Of all the places in the world, it’s pretty unlikely that the International Olympics Committee today would have picked a city smack in the middle the most politically tense peninsula on earth. But the decision of a few years ago has stood—and somehow South Korea has been remarkably poised during the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

Seriously, watching the ads for the Games during the Super Bowl, you’d think the two-week extravaganza were taking place in Minnesota. It’s as if there isn’t an enemy country next door staring down its back, threatening the world with nuclear war no less. Of course, anything can happen, but clearly one has to ask how a country that’s only a fifth the size of California managed to get to this stage.

Back in 2011, when the IOC made the selection, it went so far as to label South Korea a “low-risk environment” for hosting the Games. We know, of course, how much tensions have grown since then between North Korea, the United States, China, and Russia. But think of the other challenges, starting with the IOC’s decision to ban Russia from the Games, which resulted in calls for a boycott from a faction of politicians and citizens. Small wonder that, though they plan on sending athletes to compete, officials from Austria, France, and Germany, among others, have expressed concerns over security during the games. That takes the challenge of managing through VUCA—a popular acronym in leadership parlance for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—to, quite literally, Olympic-size levels.

Thus far, South Korea’s organizing committee has shown tremendous vision despite the complications, which include having three leadership changes of its own since its winning bid in 2011. Committing to building a high-speed rail line between capital city Seoul and Pyeongchang, for instance, helped seal the country’s election to host the Games after submitting losing bids in 2010 and 2014. The country constructed six new venues, all of which were built within 30 minutes of the Games’ main area and less than an hour from Seoul to makes it as convenient as possible for athletes and fans. And yet the total cost is estimated to be around $10 billion, or five times less than the cost of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

But by far, easing political tensions with its hostile neighbor had to be South Korea’s biggest and most important move yet. It happened last month, when the two sides came together and South Korea agreed to allow North Korea’s athletes to compete in the Games, with the two nations marching together during the opening ceremony under a Korean Unification flag. There will even be a unified women’s ice hockey team for the two countries. Sure, such diplomacy is never easy, but you have to applaud South Korea for showing how a little humility can go a long way at the right time.

Obviously, we can’t know for sure until long after the Olympic flame has died out if this will all be a textbook case of effective leadership. But certainly the stakes are huge. After all, the Olympics are supposed to be about uniting the world through competition. Wouldn’t it be something if the 2018 Winter Games—which already will now feature two countries technically at war marching together—actually lived up to that ideal?