Cultivating Intercultural Leaders: An Examination of 12 Prominent Korean Leaders

What key factors contributed to native-born Koreans (NBKs) rise to prominence as intercultural leaders? In the quest of discovering the common denominators of their success, Kyung Kyu Kim and Richard Starcher, two scholars in the field of Christian leadership.The participants of this research involved 12 prominent native-born Koreans who have overcome experiential, cultural, and linguistic barriers to achieve prominence as leaders in intercultural contexts. The participants were intentionally selected according from three leadership levels:


  • Sukhee Kang – mayor of Irvine, CA
  • City council members in Irvine and Cerritos, CA



  • Bank Ki-moon – General secretary of the United Nations
  • Yonggi “David” Cho – pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, the world’s largest church by congregation
  • Jang Hwan “Billy” Kim – Former President of the Baptist World Alliance. (Most notable for his superlative translation at the Bill Graham Crusade in 1973. Each night the crowd grew to a maximum of attendance 1.1 million people – the historical largest in the Billy Graham crusades)
  • Heedon Lee – First Vice President of the World Trade Center
  • Two leaders of Christian missions

The collective data analysis resulted in 24 key themes from which emerged 6 key factors contributing to the study participants’ rises to prominence as intercultural leaders. The 6key factors fell into two broad categories:

  • external influences
  • internal dispositions

Kim & Starcher notes that all factors emerged as equally important among the participants. They identified three categories to the extent of factors being applied to the participants:

  • “Decisive” – those present in the lives of 11 or 12 participants (90%-100%)
  • “Important” – those present in the lives of 9 to 10 participants (75%-85%)
  • “Helpful” – those present in the lives of 6 to 8 participants (50%-75%)

External Influences: Family Heritage, Pivotal Encounters, and Academic Achievement


Family heritage had a profound impact to all of the 12 intercultural leaders in this study. Two aspects were distilled from the research: values exemplified and values taught.

  • Values exemplified:
    • Gimoon’s father was a good and generous person. His father was considerate of others and enjoyed giving to others. Thus, when people came to his father to request help, his father never rejected them. When Gimoon was a high school student, his father took in a friend who had nowhere to go, letting him stay in his house and feeding him for a year…. His father also accepted a friend who was cast out by his family because he had Hansen’s disease. For six months he served this friend with love, giving him meals and encouragement. (Shin, 2007, pp. 100-101, 154-155)
    • Yonggi’s grandmother was a very warmhearted woman who liked to serve others. Many relatives and poor neighbors wanted to live together in his grandparents’ house because they had no food to eat. His grandparents accommodated them. Therefore, 13 families lived in the house due to his grandparents’ generosity. His grandparents helped them cultivate the rice field and farm. In addition, his grandparents fed wanderers and travelers and provided them with a place to sleep. Therefore all the village people praised his grandparents. (Han, 2008, p. 61)
  • Values taught:
    • My [Sukhee] parents taught me to keep my promises to others. They always taught me the importance of gaining peoples’ trust. Thus, I always have made efforts to keep promises, even though it cost me personally. This resulted in people seeing me as a consistent man. This is my big fortune. One of the reasons that I got this position was that everybody acknowledged my consistent character.
    • Yonggi’s grandmother told him when he was a child that men should put others first, because if a man lived just for himself, both he and others would perish at the same time (Han, 2008, p. 62) Gimoon’s mother always instructed him: “Because a person will get exactly what he deserves, if you harm others, bad things will happen to you afterwards” (Shin, 2007, p. 29). “Be benevolent to others. You should live in a kindly manner without quarreling with others” (Shin, 2007, p. 155)

The key message illustrated here is that the soil for cultivating a successful intercultural leader is a healthy family. Parents and grandparents who pass on heritage values positions their offspring to succeed as leaders.

*As you read on, I would like to encourage you to think about your personal story. How has your family heritage impact you to live according to your underlying, core values? What were some key values exemplified and taught in your upbringing?


Kim and Starcher defines pivotal encounters as someone meeting who profoundly changed one’s life. All of participants were profoundly galvanized by pivotal encounters in which it motivated them to study hard, challenged them to become leaders, pursued advanced studies overseas, stimulated to develop self-confidence. The following are some examples of how pivotal encounters ignited motivation and how others served as a role model:

  • When Gi-moon Ban, UN General Secretary, heard Foreign Minister Byun speak during his elementary school years, he was inspired to be a great man for his mother country. An encounter with American President John F. Kennedy in 1962 solidified his dream of becoming a diplomat. When Billy Kim met the evangelist Billy Graham as a high school student, he was motivated to become a great evangelist like Billy Graham. When Won-suk Ma met his high school principal, who graduated from Princeton University, he was motivated to study abroad in order to grow in stature.
  • For Gi-moon Ban, Foreign Minister Byun was not only an inspiration but also a model of what it meant to be a successful diplomat (Shin, 2007). In a similar manner, Won-suk Ma’s high school principal proved an excellent role model for him. Likewise, after his pivotal encounter with Billy Graham, Jang Kwan (Billy) Kim emulated him to the point of adopting the great evangelist’s first name.

*What were your pivotal encounters? Who has impacted you profoundly and in which way? How did it help you to become the person you are now?


Academic excellence was surprisingly not deemed as a “decisive” factor in these intercultural leaders, albeit it was helpful in their development in gaining credence for their leadership. Three themes emerged from the top 12 leaders. 

  • Excellence in primary and secondary school – 6 of them took first place in their elementary school classes. In middle and high schools, 8 of them were honor students. The remaining four were mediocre in their academic track record
  • Success in college – 10 participants were ranked as honor students. Among the 12, 7 participants graduated from top-tier universities. 10 of the 12 also studied abroad when it was difficult to do so in the age of time. Their overseas experience honed their ability to become diverse leaders.
  • Advanced degrees – 10 participants held graduate degrees, where 8 of them had doctoral degrees. For 6 of the 8 doctoral degree holders, a doctorate was vital for their attainment in their leadership position.

Internal Dispositions: Individual Attitudes, Acquired Skills, Personality Traits


Five key personal attitudes emerged as decisive factors in cultivating the top 12 leaders:
self-confidence, drive, passion, optimism, and constancy.

  • Self-confidence – some participants gained self-confidence through parental encouragements; others through pivotal encounters; others gaining outstanding grades in school. All of these participants were not born with self-confidence but were obtained through life experiences.
  • Drive – The top leaders never settled for “good enough” but put their utmost effort in their respective endeavors. For example, Ban Gi-moon found Harvard’s Kennedy School a tough academic environment, even though his English was excellent. One day, his wife called to ask her sister-in-law to stop her husband from studying too much.
  • Passion – Among all the other attributes, passion emerged as the most common attitude. These leaders would sacrifice their sleep, food, reward to accomplish their mission. One participant’s passion would not let him stop planting churches; he planted over 100 in various mission fields. One participant’s passion led him to establish the biggest church in the world. Another participant’s passion encouraged him to study English in the US for a year so he could enter and win the National Speech Competition in High School in Korea.
  • Optimism – Despite insurmountable difficulties in their life journey, they always exuded an optimistic and positive attitude. One participant said, “I believe that in the world, the person who has the biggest shortcoming is not the person who has weak points but the person who has negative thoughts and a negative attitude. Even though one has a severe problem, if he sees it through a positive perspective, to him or her, it could even be a blessing.”
  • Constancy – The majority of the participants attributed their consistent attitude as enabling them to rise into prominence. One participant’s wife reported, “My husband’s distinctive characteristic is that he is a consistent person. He cannot make a decision easily. He needs enough time to make a decision. However, if he decides his plan or goal, he never changes it halfway. When I saw the situation objectively, in my thinking his plan or goal should be changed. However, he never wavered. Finally, his goal was achieved. Because of his distinctive consistent character, he has achieved many things in difficult circumstances.”

5) ACQUIRED SKILLS – Creativity, Communication Skills, English Proficiency, Cultural Competence, Interpersonal Competence. To read more about the skill sets, please click here.

6) PERSONALITY TRAITS – Four personality traits emerged important (but not decisive) to participants’ rise to prominence as intercultural leaders. Nearly all the participants were tolerant, resolute, empathetic, and persistent. Nine of twelve participants were very tolerant, understanding, and charitable. The wife of one participant commented, “My husband has a mind so open that I cannot understand it. My husband tolerates and accepts someone whom I would never forgive and accept. I believe that the open mind is the gift of God.”Ten of the twelve participants had experienced various trials that would have crushed most people. However, they overcame these trials through patient persistence. For example, one participant said,
I have experienced many severe hardships in my life. If I could not endure trials, I think that today my leadership would not exist. I have seen many people fail because of their deficiency of persistence. The data indicated that a resolute character in decision-making was important to prominent leadership. For example, the participant who described himself as not being persistent had strong decision-making abilities. Even so, not all participants found decision-making easy.

Key Lessons 

  • Parenting to Cultivate Intercultural Leaders: “The socialization of children in the home emerged as critical to the cultivation of prospective leaders, far more significant than academic success. However, much in Korean society today militates against the inculcation of heritage values. The study participants grew up in a largely agrarian society in which family education was natural because families were large and several generations lived together. Communication between adults and children was frequent and often prolonged. However, in Korea today, both parents regularly work outside the home, meaning children are likely to spend more time with their computers than with their parents. A return to the old days is impossible. Therefore, we suggest the following strategies for contemporary families to promote intercultural leadership development: (a) instilling heritage values, (b) facilitating pivotal encounters, and (c) fostering good attitudes.”
  • Schooling to Cultivate Intercultural Leaders: “Contrary to expectations, academic achievement or schooling emerged as the least important of the key factors in NBKs’ rises to prominent intercultural leadership positions. Perhaps the relatively feeble connection between schooling and leadership success can be explained by the disparity between the abilities rewarded by schooling and those required of successful intercultural leaders. Of course, academic intelligence is not a handicap in leadership. However, contemporary Korean schooling focuses almost exclusively on cognitive objectives, thus rewarding abilities other than those most needed in leaders (e.g., recall of information as opposed to self-confidence, tolerance, and empathy). Of the three educational domains, affective and the psychomotor (i.e., skills) emerged as most significant in participants’ rise to prominence as intercultural leaders. Without neglecting the cognitive, Korean schooling should place greater emphasis on character and skills to develop future intercultural leaders. One skill in particular merits special mention: English proficiency, which is crucial for today’s intercultural leader. Again, success in “school English” as an academic subject (cognitive task) is insufficient. English is first and foremost a communication skill whose mastery requires learners to step out of their mono-cultural, mono-linguistic context to interact with English speakers. “