Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il: A Contrast in Leadership

The coincidental loss of two world leaders in as many days illuminates a stark contrast in leadership styles. It is difficult to find a greater difference in approach than that of Václav Havel of the Czech Republic and Kim Jong Il of North Korea.

Václav Havel was President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic from 1989 to 2003. Prior to his rise to power he was an outspoken dissident of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. His political plays and support for the opposition frequently led to imprisonment. In the fall of 1989 he became the head of the revolution against Communist rule, the Velvet Revolution. His nonviolent approach led to a bloodless transfer of power and election in 1990 as the first freely elected President of Czechoslovakia since 1946.

Havel was an idealist and always fought for freedom for all individuals, no matter how unpopular that stance may be. For example, he fought for the rights of Gypsies and Communists after losing control of the government.

In contrast, despot Kim Jong Il was a brutal and cunning leader. At his ascension to ruler of North Korea in 1994 he inherited a country which had lost its benefactor, was slipping into a large-scale famine, and whose economy was in shambles. Despite the dire situation, Kim was able to nurture a fledgling nuclear program to the point of creating nuclear weapons which he used as blackmail in a brilliant game of tactical brinksmanship with China, the United States, Japan, and Russia. The famine ultimately terminated over two million lives, almost 10% of the North Korean population. Yet Kim was able to maintain control by treating the military well and keeping a tight lid on dissent.

At the time he rose to power, pundits predicted his rule would unravel before his second anniversary as leader. Instead, Kim played his cards extremely well and beat all odds, maintaining rule, oppression and the country’s borders. Kim Jong Il led by fear, intimidation, and unpredictability.

The passing of these titans should give all leaders pause. As I observe and interact with leaders in organizations I see the complete spectrum of leadership, from abusive to congenial, from command and control to laissez faire, from respectful to disdain. It may be a good time to look in the mirror and assess your leadership style, much as many around the globe are assessing the leadership style of Havel and Kim.


• Do you lead more frequently with fear—or empowerment?
• Do you direct team members—or nurture their creative energy?
• Do you respect everyone, even those seemingly without any power?
• What legacy will your leadership leave behind?

Keywords: leadership, authentic, dark side

Share on Facebook
This entry was posted in Authenticity, Dark Side and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *