– James Jung’s Reflections on Week 2, NetKAL VIII Program
Partly to get out of the light morning rain but mostly because I had been looking forward to seeing the group again, I sent off my cab and hurried inside the Rockefeller Research Lab building located on Manhattan’s upper east side. As I entered the room still brushing the rain off my jacket, I saw that in contrast to the gray, overcast mood outside, the room was already aglow in the big grins and raucous laughs – raucous but measured because we are Korean, after all – of old friends who had seemingly known each other far longer than the actual three days we spent together in February. From the hinterlands of Long Island City to the remote reaches of Central America where one fellow was performing free medical care just the day before, the group had traveled far and wide to pick up where we had left off.
Session 1 had taken inventory of our personal strengths, and in Session 2 we continued to point the scope inward as we explored the concepts of power and leadership. Dr. Ronald Brown, a management consultant who specializes in leadership development and the expansion of personal capabilities, challenged us to embrace the wielding of power and the imposition of our wants on others as necessary tools for success. For the most part, the group appeared uneasy with the idea of exerting power as an end onto itself and often questioned where the moral boundaries should lie. On the other hand, some were fully aboard and recognized that interpersonal relationships in the workforce are indeed a constant, if subtle, competition for power. They emphasized that we need to persistently practice imposing ourselves and exercising power if we are to build an effective power base and gain access to leadership opportunities. Regardless of which camp you fell into, one fellow made the most salient observation of the day in noting that whether or not you choose to be part of the game, the game is being played all around (and on) you nevertheless. And as we shifted the focus to examining power dynamics through the prism of culture and gender, this truth was difficult to deny.
The conversation continued well past the session’s closing and even found purchase in the emails and messages that the group has exchanged since. In an article that one fellow shared about why overachieving Asian-Americans underachieve in the corporate scheme, one quote precisely echoed what we had discussed: “They just see me as an Asian Ph.D., never management potential.”
To be sure, Dr. Brown’s power play concept is something that we had individually considered before. We certainly would not have become leaders in our respective fields if we had not successfully navigated organizational power struggles. But he dug his spurs deep into our sides to make us confront the issue in a way that made us uncomfortable, to see that perhaps despite the discomfort it was the reality. I, for one, consider our lack of individual and collective power to be the single most important challenge facing Koreans in America, and if NetKAL wants to carry the mantle as the network of Korean-American leaders, then we have an obligation to deepen the dialogue.