Shattering Illusions

Today’s blog is taken from the message I shared in my monthly newsletter.

I read a compelling article in Wired Magazine.  It is the story of a middle-aged North Korean defector named Kang Chol-hwan.   As a child, Kang spent 10 years in a prison camp with his family.  When he was released from the prison camp he was given a radio receiver that he figured out how to re-wire, allowing him to listen to unofficial programming.  He began to relearn the entire history he had been taught about North Korea.  Eventually he was found out, and he barely managed to escape by bribing some border guards.

Soon Kang was touring the world and visiting with heads of state.  Thousands listened to his story.  When he returned to South Korea he found little support for his desire to change the North.  The president of South Korea had just won the Nobel Prize for his policy of compromise with the North.  Many people intellectually and emotionally supported Kang’s cause, but few were willing to take action.  Kang was a threat to the stability of the regime.

In 2005, when Kang realized that there was little hope that anyone would act against the North Korean government, he did what internally directed leaders do.  Kang took a unique path.  “Change, he decided, would have to come from within, through the same life-altering education he had received from his illegal radio. He flipped his strategy: Instead of working to tell the world about the horrors of North Korea, he would work to tell North Koreans about the world.”

Kang has spent the last ten years smuggling contraband into North Korea.  His organization gets 3,000 USB drives, filled with information about the world, into the North every year.  He believes that this injection of information will eventually lead to the overthrow of the Kim dynasty.  He sees the USB drives like “the red pill from The Matrix: a mind-altering treatment that has the power to shatter a world of illusions.”

There are many lessons in Kang’s story.

1.  Organizations can intimidate and constrain their people – like North Korea.  People can become disengaged and afraid.

2.  People can react conventionally, and accept the assumptions of their leaders.  Or they can respond like Kang and seek new information and new avenues for creating a positive solution.

3.  We can all be like South Korea and other countries that were unwilling to “rock the boat.”  Fear may keep us from making the kind of deep changes that are necessary in the long term.  We often choose peace and pay in our organization.

4.  Kang internalized 5 characteristics that I believe are critical to creating a positive organization:  communicating authentically, illuminating the highest purpose, focusing on the common good, seeing possibility, and trusting and embracing the chaos and risk that is inherent in the emergent process.

I’m sure there are many more lessons that can be found in Kang’s story that are applicable to your situation.  I hope that like Kang you will find ways to inject positive ideas into your organization (and life), and that you will use those ideas to start conversations and shatter old illusions.

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