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Samsung Could Succeed Even With Leader in Jail

August 30, 2017, 1:20 PM UTC

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I got to thinking Tuesday about the importance of leadership.

One of the world’s most successful and yet mysterious companies in the world, Samsung Electronics, has been operating without its leader for months and likely will continue to do so for some time to come. What makes Samsung so mysterious is that it’s not altogether clear who leads the company or what its leaders do. The company follows an avowedly Confucian model of consensus-driven decision-making, values bone-crushingly hard work, and shows tremendous deference to the founding Lee family, despite its lack of a controlling interest in its shares.

Can Samsung thrive with its de facto leader, Jay Y. Lee, in jail? It has so far, and this week it answered critics by making a large semiconductor investment, its first big deal since Lee’s imprisonment. Samsung has strong leaders who aren’t named Lee. Whether or not they can steer the company in his absence will be the top question facing Samsung.

Billionaire Samsung Heir Jay Y. Lee Faces Corruption Trial Verdict
Jay Y. Lee, co-vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., center, is escorted by prison officers as he arrives at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017.Chung Sung-Jun/Pool via Bloomberg
Chung Sung-Jun/Pool via Bloomberg

One of the world’s most controversial companies, Uber, gets a new leader Wednesday when Expedia’s Dara Khosrowshahi takes over as CEO. By all accounts, Khosrowshahi is the antithesis of Uber’s previous CEO, Travis Kalanick, who nevertheless led Uber most of the way to where it is today. The company isn’t a fraction the success that Samsung is, which is why all the more reason it needs a strong leader who can salvage what’s right and jettison what’s wrong.

One company with a legacy of excellence will go it alone. Another with a track record of great promise followed by repeated disappointments gets a new chance. It’s like a business version of the cycle of life. It continues.