What Can the South Korea Ferry Tragedy Teach Us About Leadership?


A true gentleman knows that in all circumstances — and especially emergency situations — he ought to tend to the well-being of women and children before his own. A true captain — like any leader who is concerned with the good of those under his care — knows that he ought to ensure the safety of others before his own, even if he is required to remain on a sinking ship. And every Christian — in fact — is called to regard others as more important than himself. “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests,” Paul writes, “but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:2-4).

Captain Lee Jun-seok abided by none of these principles, which is why the South Korean public has taken to calling him “the evil of Sewol.” Sewol is the name of the ferry that sunk last Wednesday, resulting in the death of over 100 people. Nearly 200 people are still missing. For the two and a half hours in which the Sewol was sinking, only 179 of 475 passengers were saved. Over half of the missing passengers are students from Danwon High School, who were planning to enjoy a brief vacation before investing a year studying for a grueling university entrance exam.

As the ship began tilting, the passengers were aware that something was amiss. While some escaped to the deck and jumped into the water, the captain told his passengers to stay in their rooms. By the time an evacuation order was made — nearly an hour later — the passengers who remained inside were trapped on the third and fourth floor of the ferry, and the captain — along with several crew members — had already escaped.

Although the captain maintains that he was looking out for the safety of his passengers by ordering them to stay in their rooms rather than leap into the frigid water, where they could be swept away by a notoriously fast current, he has taken no responsibility for the incompetence of his crew. While the boat tilted quickly, making it difficult to retrieve lifeboats, only a small portion of the lifeboats was utilized. Kang Hae-seong, Sewol’s communications officer, says he was unaware of the evacuation procedures and claims not to have had time during the crisis to check the manual for emergency evacuation instructions.

From the testimonies of survivors, both passengers and crew members, it seems as if this tragedy is a result of a lack of leadership, a lack of training, and a lack of care for one’s fellow man. How is it possible that less than half of a ship’s passengers were rescued during a two-and-a-half hour window?

South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, released an official statement in which she vociferously decried the negligence of a portion of the Sewol’s crewmembers: “The actions of the captain and some of the crew are absolutely unacceptable, unforgivable actions that are akin to murder.” When asked to comment on the tragedy, Kim Han Shik, CEO of the ship’s owning and operating company, called the event a “terrible sin.”

By ordering the passengers to remain in the ship instead of imploring them to ascend to the deck, where they could escape more easily if necessary, Captain Lee Jun-seok utterly failed to protect those under his charge. John B. Padget III, a retired United States Navy admiral, didn’t mince words when he remarked, “That guy’s an embarrassment to anybody who’s ever had command at sea.”

Lee Adamson, spokesman for the International Maritime Organization, said there is no international law requiring a captain to remain on his sinking ship. But Jack Hickey, a maritime law attorney, indicates that “pretty much every law, rule, regulation, and standard throughout the world says that, yes, the captain must stay with the ship until all personnel are safely off the ship, certainly passengers.”

Although fear and indecision can easily paralyze anyone — even a captain — in an emergency, Lee should have done “much, much more” according to the ferry’s engine driver, Jeon Young Joon.

Clearly, the captain’s primary duty is to take precautions and make decisions that assure the safety of the vessel and everyone on board. South Korea does have a law mandating that captains stay on their vessels until every passenger departs. Since Captain Lee Jun-seok not only fled his ship before other passengers, but also failed to shepherd the people on the ferry, he is facing several charges, including accidental homicide and negligence. According to Prosecutor Lee Bong-chang, “Lee is charged with failing to do the right thing to guide the passengers to escape and thereby leading to their death or injury.”

While the majority of the media’s attention has focused on the incompetence and fear of many crew members, some of the crew members displayed genuine heroism. Seven of the 29 crew members are still missing, presumably because they assisted passengers during the evacuation.

Park Jiyong, a crew member, helped students escape without ever putting a lifejacket on herself (on some floors, there weren’t enough life jackets for everyone). She assured the students that she would be close behind, but she died before she could be rescued.

Yang Dae-hong sent one final text to his wife: “I’m on my way to save the kids.” He has not been heard from again.

These crew members did what the captain did not have the courage to do. Oh Young-seok, a helmsman on the Sewol, said, “The captain should have stayed there even if it meant his death.”

Biblical Insights:

What does good leadership require (John 10:11-15)?

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep.” (John 10:11-15)

Jesus established the principle of servant leadership. When his disciples argue about which of them is the greatest, Jesus responds, “Whoever is the least among you is the greatest” (Luke 9:47). At the last supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, saying, “Since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).

Although his position as Messiah — as savior of the human race — required him “to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many,” Jesus was faithful, following through on the responsibilities God had given him even when he would have gladly forgone his gruesome death in favor of a life of safety and repose (Mark 10:45; Luke 22:42).

When Paul encourages the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitates Christ, Paul is referring to the way in which he does not what is best for him but what is best for others, that they might be saved (1 Corinthians 10:33-11:1).

Thus, genuine, godly leadership is self-giving, concerned primarily with the good of the other rather than the good of oneself. Whereas the tyrant cares only for his own good, the ideal, benevolent, and good king cares for the good of his people. This type of proper rule is epitomized by God. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, exhibits the characteristics of genuine leadership by going to any length necessary to procure the safety, protection, and well-being of the flock.

Judging from this most recent tragedy, Captain Lee Jun-seok acted like a hired hand, who assumed a position of leadership for reputation, honor, or simply for money. His actions revealed his true motivations, which centered on himself and led him to forsake his duties and the lives of others in order to spare his own life. Those crew members who offered a helping hand to students, who served others rather than themselves, modeled genuine leadership.

What can the example of Christ, the Good Shepherd, teach us about true, other-regarding leadership, which is authentic leadership in the eyes of God?

Captain Lee Jun-seok is facing criminal charges for failing to do everything in his power to lead his passengers to safety. What more could he have done to protect his flock? What are we as leaders in our communities doing to promote the flourishing of those under our charge? Are we imitating Christ, giving all that we possibly can to lead others to the abundant life to which Jesus calls us?