Finding a solution before reprimanding
On July 16, 1597, the Japanese army destroyed Won Gyun's fleet of 160 ships in a surprise attack at the Battle of Chilcheollyang. The main commanders of the Joseon Naval Forces were killed, as well as Won Gyun, who was the Commander-in-Chief of Samdo Naval Forces on behalf of Yi Sun-sin, as he fled to the mainland while being chased by the enemy. Commander of Gyeongsang Right Fleet, Bae Seol, escaped with about 10 battleships, which became the last remaining forces of the Joseon Naval Forces. In this hopeless situation, Yi Sun-sin rebuilt the entire Joseon Navy, which was practically annihilated, within just two months. In addition, he defeated 133 Japanese ships with only 13 ships, leading to a great victory at the Battle of Myeongnyang. How was he able to do that when there were not enough forces and the morale of soldiers was at its lowest? The answer can be found in his diary entry of July 18, 1597.
At dawn, Lee Deok-pil and Byun Hong-dal came and said, "At the dawn of the 16th, the navy was ambushed by the Japanese, and several generals, including the Commander-in-Chief Won Gyun, commander of Eastern Jeolla Fleet Yi Eok-ki, and commander of Chungcheong Fleet Choi Ho, suffered a great deal of damage and were defeated." As I heard those words, I couldn't help but wail in despair. After a while, the enemy (Kwon Yul) came and said, "It can't be helped because we have reached the limit," and we talked until the morning, but I could not settle my mind. I said, "I will decide after I go to the coastal region and see it myself." The enemy seemed pleased to hear that.
This diary entry was written by Admiral Yi Sun-sin at Chogye, Hapcheon when he was sentenced to prison by Won Gyun’s scheme and went to fight as baekuijonggun (ordinary soldier without rank). The main thing is that he said, “I will decide after I go to the coastal region and see it myself.” Usually in a crisis, leaders receive reports from staff from afar and then come up with a strategy. But Yi Sun-sin was different. He said he would see the scene with his own eyes and decide after hearing their stories. He adhered to the principle that “the cause of all problems is in the field and the answer to solve the problem is also in the field.”
Finding the problem in the field and going through the whole process together
Yi Sun-sin went to the battlefield and identified the problem, which was that there was a deep and entrenched fear of death among the naval forces following their defeat at the Battle of Chilcheollyang. Yi Sun-sin decided to make the rounds to the coastal areas of Jeolla Province, build a castle, and gather military equipment and rice for the soldiers’ meals. Because he was respected as a god-like person in the areas of Jeolla-do and Gyeongsang-do, people who had fled the area came back after hearing the news. They firmly believed that they would not be defeated again if they were with Yi Sun-sin. However, it was not easy to deal with their low morale and agitation. One official stole the rations and ran away. Another person issued a false alarm that the Japanese army had come to steal cows, and ran away. They were both beheaded in front of the people as an example. The crowd gradually regained trust in the leadership as they saw order being restored and action taken against those who cause disturbance and trouble. The soldiers and the people began to come together around Yi Sun-sin. This also explains how the Joseon Naval Forces were able to be rebuilt into a fighting force within just two months. Having the leader on the field to direct everything reinforced their power and order. The same is true today. In the event of a crisis, a leader must be at the center to solve the problem. When responsible leaders work directly with the staff, they are able to make decisions fast while adhering to the principles, and so they can restore order faster.
A powerful strategy is needed to ignite the will to fight
Even with the presence of a leader on the battlefield, it is still remarkable that the Joseon Navy was able to destroy 133 Japanese ships with only 13 ships. The answer to this question can be found in the diary entries of September 15 and September 16, 1597:
I made a promised before a number of generals. “The Art of War says, ‘Those who seek death shall live, those who seek life shall die.’ Also, there is a saying, ‘One who keeps strategic points well can frighten 1,000 enemies.’ This all apply to us today.”
Near Uldolmok in Jindo Bridge (Myeongnyang) stands a statue known as Admiral Yi Sun-sin in Anguish, in which Yi Sun-sin is holding a map, instead of a sword. Yi Sun-sin was well aware of the unfavorable situation in terms of number of men, weapons, and resources. He sent reconnaissance vessels from time to time to gather information on the enemy and determine their anticipated route. As he looked at the map at Uldolmok, he remembered the saying, "One who keeps a strategic point well can frighten 1,000 enemies." He was convinced that using the narrow terrain and rapids of Uldolmok, he could win. This was Yi Sun-sin’s strategy of picking and choosing the time, place, and method of battle to his advantage. In other words, Yi Sun-sin had a solid strategy to turn a crisis into an opportunity. As much as he was determined to fight in the war with all his strength, he had realistic plans for victory. During a crisis, everyone comes up with a way to cope with the crisis. When members of the group have already lost trust in the leader, the leader's strategy should be particularly convincing. At the Battle of Myeongnyang, Admiral Yi Sun-sin came up with a strategy to use the terrain and currents to create a more advantageous situation to him than to the Japanese army, and the naval forces probably saw a glimmer of hope in that plan.
Be the first to act and lead by example
But during the final battle, Yi Sun-sin faced a moment of despair once again. When he was leading the Joseon Nav from the very front of the line, he noticed the remaining 12 ships were being hesitant. He saw that they were thinking of the defeat in the Battle of Chilcheollyang and dying soldiers. Yi Sun-sin recalled the scene as recorded in his diary below:
Early in the morning, a byeolmanggun (a stand guard soldier) came and reported, "The enemy ships are coming straight through Myeongnyang into where we set up the base." I immediately ordered several ships to raise anchors and go out to the sea, and about 130 enemy ships surrounded our ships. The generals knew that they were up against a large number of enemies with a small number and were only trying to escape. The boat of the Commander of the Eastern Fleet Kim Eok-chu was already 2 majang (0.8km) away. I hurried to the paddle, rushed forward, and shot various guns around, and the bullets came out like wind and thunder.
Yi Sun-sin was very angry to see that, but decided to set an example by fighting at the very front. He practiced what he preached, “Those who seek death shall live, and those who seek life shall die.” Not fearing death, he launched a strategy against the Japanese navy, exploded shells, and pushed the Japanese navy into a corner. When the captain of the Japanese navy was distracted, Yi Sun-sin took the chance and ultimately sank the ship. This reversed the tide, and the remaining 12 ships that had fallen behind came forward and fought alongside Yi Sun-sin with all their might. Leaders should be the first to practice what they preach. If a leader tries to use flashy words but only seek personal profit, people will surely find out. At the Battle of Chilcheollyang, what destroyed Won Gyun’s fleet was his seeking of personal comfort and lack of communication and strategy even with the mighty fleet of Yi Sun-sin. On the other hand, Yi Sun-sin brought about a completely different result with such little force and low morale. Leaders must be strategists and executors. In other words, leaders must recognize that their own actions are directly related to the survival of the company.