Korean coach Park Hang-seo has had an illustrious career with the Vietnam national and U23 football teams since 2017, in no small measure thanks to his style of “papa leadership”.
In the summer of 2002, South Korea erupted like a volcano after the men’s football team defeated Spain in the quarter-final of the World Cup 2002. Right after the match, Coach Park Hang-seo flew to Vietnam to visit his parents, who lived here. Even if it was only his second trip to Vietnam, he says it was not difficult to see how passionate people in Vietnam are about football – sitting in the streets and cafes to watch football matches every day (and night).
But little did those football fans know that their now beloved Coach Park Hang-seo was behind Korea’s success story at the World Cup 2002.
Indeed, he did not get much attention from the public at the time as he was “only one of the assistant coaches”. Yet, many industry insiders believe that his role, though hidden, was critical to the communication between the foreign head coach at the time, Guus Hiddink, and the Korean players, as there were communication and cultural barriers.
After another milestone of success that Coach Park achieved at the SEA Games 2022, we decided to delve into what makes him such a great leader.
“I moved to Vietnam in 2003, and ever since, Vietnam has been a place of comfort and one where I can communicate and share my personal values and culture. I see many similarities between Vietnamese and Korean, probably as Confucian values highly influenced the two countries. In fact, leadership literature suggests people in countries with Confucian values tend to expect their leaders to act as their ‘papa’ – or father,” he said.
In other words, when leaders have the generosity as well as the ability to communicate and guide as a kind and inspirational father figure, followers would see such qualities as charismatic and be encouraged to perform beyond expectations.
Coach Park’s leadership style has been dubbed as “papa leadership” for this reason. The media has reported numerous anecdotes about his efforts to form a familial bond among the teams he coaches and his genuine acts of care and kindness toward his players.
Every time Vietnamese players score or miss a goal, Coach Park’s emotional reactions and gestures on TV touch the team and audiences. He can often be mistaken for an overzealous “football dad” who comes to watch all his son’s matches and cries at every success and misstep.
Yet, just being a kind father figure would not have brought him this much success. During his time at the World Cup 2002, he learned how Hiddink broke the toxic culture of relationships over performance, which had been discouraging players from performing at their best. Coach Park might be a friendly father who makes players smile and bond as one team, but he is also a fair and scientific leader who makes decisions based on facts and fairness, encouraging and sending clear messages of how one’s hard work will be appreciated in practice.
The story of Coach Park might be particularly important for expats who run multinational organisations in Vietnam since it gives indications on how to develop a suitable situational leadership with the values of generosity, connectivity, and equal and scientific decisions.
It can also be an important lesson for Vietnamese company leaders, as family-based businesses are the dominant form of business here. This form of business has received a wide range of criticism since it can lead to nepotism and favouritism, reducing motivation and performance.
However, having the right family-like leader who treats people fairly and equally could be the best approach to inspiring people to align with organisational success. Research also suggests that young generations such as Gen Z are more motivated by fairness and equity, which emphasises the lesson of fair “papa leadership” for business leaders globally as well.
And as for Coach Park, it will be interesting to see how well he leads the national team further and how his “papa leadership” style catches on. In the meantime, let us continue to share the infectious joy of watching him hopping gleefully and fist-pumping every time the Vietnam team scores a goal.
(*) Dr Jung Woo Han is an Interim Senior Program Manager for Human Resource Management at the School of Business & Management, RMIT University Vietnam