10 Leadership Principles I Learned from Dosan Ahn Chang Ho

In the city of Riverside, California, three statues stand in the heart of downtown. These statues portray Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dosan Ahn Chang Ho – three men who have sacrificed for ideals larger than themselves. You may recognize the first two. But who on earth is Dosan Ahn Chang Ho?


You can’t talk about the modern Korean history without mentioning the remarkable feats of Dosan Ahn Chang Ho. Born in 1878 Dosan, his pen name, was a prominent Korean activist who fought for the independence of Japanese occupation of Korea. He died on March 10, 1938 after being imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese.

I finished reading a compelling biography of the leadership of Dosan. Though he lived 100 years before this generation, his leadership principles is a great model the 21st century leader.

His leadership principle can be summed up in one word: 愛己愛他 (Ae Ki Ae Ta). It’s literal English translation says “Love Yourself, love others.”


Love is the heart of a liberating leadership. A liberator is someone who fights for the highest possible good in the lives of those they lead. This idea of love is the heart of Dosan’s leadership philosophy.

Here are the following 10 leadership principles of Dosan Ahn Chang Ho that continues to hold true for the 21st century leader.

1. Who Am I? Self-Examination and Discovery

Very much like Socrates, Dosan believed that the “unexamined life isn’t worth living.” He believed creating a well-defined value system is key for Koreans to understand who they were; why they fell under the Japanese rule; and how they could recover their nation. He found that sophistry took precedence over simple truths, due to several hundred years of Confucian influence over people’s behavior. He realized honesty and truth were the values the country needed the most and created a movement to inspire these values.

2. Attaching Meaning to Life: Dreams and Setting Goals

Dosan dreamed big – the very independence of Korea. Once he told a Japanese prison guard, “All of the Korean people believe that they will achieve independence, and so they shall.” In a speech to a group of young people he shared a compelling vision.

There will be the time when our Tae Geuk (Korean) flag will wave in cities across the globe. our flag will represent absolute trust and superb quality…but some day the word “Korean” will be synonymous with virtue, wisdom, and honor.”

Dosan’s big dream was supplemented with positive thinking of the future. He comforted and encouraged pessimists who thought Korean independence was simply impossible. His positivity was contagious and became the very foundation for his tenacious activities of the independence movement.

3. Leadership via Mu Shil (Pursuit of Truth)

Dosan believed that honesty was the first step toward loving oneself. So the lived by example by the word Mu Shil. When Dosan first arrived in San Francisco, he was 24 years old. He wanted to enter an elementary school to learn English. however, he was refused due to his age. Nobody over 17 years old could enroll in an elementary school. His landlord suggested that he should them he was 17 instead of 23 because he looked young. Dosan replied that he couldn’t lie which surprised teh landlord. After three attempts, the principal was impressed by Dosan’s honesty and gave him the opportunity by saying “the age limit only applies to American students, not foreign students.”

4. Developing Good Habits

Dosan truly believed taht leaders are made, not born, and emphasized the need to build healthy habits and training to acquire and achieve leadership. He is known by saying that beating an army of ten thousand is easy. Overcoming our habits is hard, and we must devote our lives to developing good habits. Also he is known for saying, “let us reform our lazy limbs and train them to become vibrant and diligent.”

5. Leadership By Setting Examples

Dosan lived out his principles in his every circle of influence. He believed that if the leader himself does not carry out what he wants his members to do so, no one will follow him or her.

Here are Dosan’s word on Yeok Hang:

  • I do my utmost to accomplish my mission for today.
  • You, me, all of us – let us become the people of action.
  • I try to complete today all the tasks I was supposed to do today.
  • Do you love your country? Then you become a wholesome character first.
  • If you feel the pain of the people, then you become a doctor.

6. Sense of Ownership (Proprietorship)

To Dosan, the sense of ownership meant responsibility to serve and sacrifice oneself for the benefit of the entire organization. Dosan believed that in the nation’s society, people with the sense of responsibility are owners; if not, they are just guests. When people adopt an ownership belief, they consider the nation as the owners and hold neither positive nor negative views but only feel responsible to find ways to save the nation.

7. Love and Fellowship

The heart of Dosan’s leadership philosophy is love. People are moved by love and is at the center of all human emotions. Here are Dosan’s word on love:

  • Why is our society so cold? There is no warmth. We should love each other and build a society filled with smiles.
  • Let us study about love, you, and I. I ask our twenty million men and women to become one loving people.
  • Ideology does not hold a group together. Love does.

8. Leading the Reform

Dosan spent his entirely reforming the national character. Dosan saw the pressing need to change the environment for his compatriots a century ago. He saw the responsibility rested with individuals to do their part to change in order to recover the loss of Korea to Japan. He emphasized a new paradigm – a society based on truth, love and unity.

His idea of reform doesn’t stop at the individual development of character. Rather it extends to his goals including economics, religion, education, agriculture and commerce. In this sense, Dosan epitomized the transformational leader as seen in his leadership in the Hungsadan organization. Constantly, Dosan reformed himself by acquiring new information about the world around him and acted accordingly to implement the necessary changes. He constantly looked for creative solutions to society’s problems. He was a pioneer in every sense of the word.

9. Democratic Leadership: Sharing Together

There is a saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go the distance, go together.” Learning to share together is important for a leader.

Chu Yohan referred to Dosan as the “model for a democratic leader,” a rarity in modern Korean history. Dosan acquired his democratic vision while he lived in America. Some of his wisdom on democratic leadership is profound. Hear them out.

  • Square rock or rounded boulder, each of them has its own use and we should not rebuke those with personalities that are different from one’s own.
  • If I am right about something, we should recognize the fact that others may be right as well. We will enjoy peace and harmony if we stop despising those with different opinions.
  • We must recognize the freedom of speech and thought between each other, and always maintain fellowship and respect, even though we may differ in our views.
  • We are free people, never to be subjected to slavery. We should only accept command that arise from our conscience and ideals.

10. Uniting Goals: Leadership by Building Consensus

Dosan believed in the power of synergy. He believed that when a group of people rally around a common cause, something beautiful happens. The key to making this happen is building consensus and alignment of goals in the same direction. Everything Dosan did was to simply unite all the forces around his ideology. Dosan is known for saying the following:

  • If we unite, we will prosper. Divided, we will fail. If we unite, we will live. Divided, we will die.
  • We Koreans may have different ideas, but if we all love our country as one people, we can find success through that common goal.
  • We need to build our solidarity today, not based on our emotions but with a vision for our nation.

What strikes me most about Dosan Ahn Chang Ho’s “Ae Ki Ae Ta” leadership is the source of it. When asked a word to describe leadership, the word “love” may not be the first choice that people would resort to. However, for Dosan, a devout Christian and eager student of the Bible, was convinced that without a doubt faith and good deeds are born out of love. Dosan believe that “love of self must precede “love of others” and one must reform himself before he could reform others.