Does Culture Determine Democratic Leadership in East Asia? the Case of South Korea during the Roh Moo-Hyun Presidency

Article excerpt

Scholars who believe that democratic leadership varies depending on culture often argue that because of the legacy of Confucian culture, East Asia favors directive leadership. However, based on our case study of South Korea during the Roh Moo-hyun presidency (2003-2008), we argue that democratic leadership varies depending on the political situation, regardless of the society's given cultural traditions. In a society, what we call "appropriate leadership" has more to do with political rather than cultural factors. Keywords: leadership, culture, Asian values, Confucianism, South Korean politics.

Scholars for decades have debated the relationship between culture and leadership. Many have questioned whether different cultures prefer styles of different leadership. Some have argued that democratic leadership varies across cultures (Hofstede 1980, 1993, 2001; Lord and Maher 1991; Gerstner and Day 1994; Jung, Bass, and Sosik 1995; House and Aditya 1997; Brodbeck, Frese, and Javidan 2002), while others have argued that some characteristics and attributes of leadership are valid across cultures (Smith and Peterson 1988; Bass 1997; Dorfman et al. 1997; House, Wright, and Aditya 1997; Den Hartog et al. 1999; Javidan and Carl 2004).

The former, which we call the culture-specific approach, assumes that because culture plays a significant role in defining appropriate-that is, democratic-leadership in a society, differ- ent cultures prefer different leadership (Javidan and Carl 2005). For example, from this perspective, a group of scholars has pointed out that "in a culture that endorses an authoritarian style, leader sensitivity might be interpreted as weak, whereas in cul- tures endorsing a more nurturing style, the same sensitivity is likely to prove essential for effective leadership" (Den Hartog et al. 1999, 225). Hence, the appropriate traits, behaviors, virtues, and roles of leaders vary depending on culture. In contrast, the lat- ter approach, which we call the "culture-neutral approach," assumes that because there are cross-cultural similarities in peo- ple's beliefs regarding leaders' traits, behaviors, virtues, and roles, some characteristics and attributes of leadership can be cross-cul- turally endorsed regardless of culture. From this perspective, the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) project, which analyzes the data obtained from respon- dents in sixty-two different cultures, shows that some character- istics of charismatic/transformational leadership are endorsed cross-culturally (Den Hartog et al. 1999).

In the field of democracy studies, a similar debate focuses on the question of whether citizens in a democracy prefer different leadership depending on culture. Especially in East and Southeast Asia, this debate has often been conducted within the context of "Asian values."1 Proponents of "Asian values" have claimed that Confucian moral traditions, which emphasize the importance of group harmony, hierarchy, and collectivism, are qualitatively dif- ferent from Western moral traditions that stress individual rights and freedom. Thus, a different style of democracy is preferred in Asia (Kausikan 1993, 1997; Zakaria 1994; Mahbubani 1995; Mahathir and Ishihara 1995; Emmerson 1995). For this reason, these proponents maintain, Western-style liberal democracy is nei- ther suitable for nor compatible with Confucian Asia (Park and Shin 2006). In contrast, critics of Asian values have argued that democracy is possible in Asia and that the Asian values argument is just a pretext to legitimize authoritarian or quasi-democratic regimes in the region (Kim 1994; Fukuyama 1995; Ng 1997; Donnelly 1999; Sen 1999).

In line with the Asian values argument, a number of scholars claim that democracy in East and Southeast Asia favors different leadership than in the West because Confucian culture defines the appropriate traits, behavior, virtues, and roles of political leaders differently (Neher 1994; O'Dwyer 2003; Park and Shin 2006). …