Ko Hyeseong-Cheon: Advocacy for Authentic Women’s Leadership

Ko Hyeseong-Cheon (1929-) is one of the most influential Korean American women leaders in the United States. A first-generation Korean American woman who immigrated to the United States during the late 1940s, Dr. Ko has been one of the most prominent leaders of the Korean American community. She has helped pave the way for minority women’s involvement in social activism and community services through her mentorship of many women leaders as well as through her academic research and social activism. As a member of Berkeley Women’s Law Journal since 1984, she has also encouraged young women to actively promote women’s legal issues. She has served as an advisory board member for the National Continuing Committee for the Observance of the International Women’s Year 1977 (1977), Asian-Pacific Women’s Organization (1978-1982), and International Women’s Decade (1980-1982). She co-founded the East Rock Institute in New Haven, Connecticut in 1952, and through it impacted Korean and Korean-American communities, especially when she served as its president from 1985 to 2007. Her leadership in community service was acknowledged through her reception of the Prime Minister’s Award in South Korea (1990), the Korean Broadcasting Society Overseas Korean Compatriot Prize in South Korea (2000), the Connecticut Governor’s Award (2003), and the Order of Civil Merit in South Korea (2007).

Ko has been a visible and influential intellectual. She has taught a number of courses on women’s studies at different colleges (e.g., “Women in Cross-Cultural Perspective” at Yale University, as well as “Women, Society, and Culture” and “Anthropology of Women” at Albertus Magnus College). Along with numerous articles on women’s leadership and contributions to culture, she wrote Women’s Authentic Leadership, a book that gained national media attention in Korea in 2006, and was translated into Chinese and Japanese. Not only has she encouraged many students in the United States to practice adaptive leadership skills as feminists, but she has also inspired East Asian women to take on leadership roles, embuing them the virtues of integrity, passion, and compassion.[1]

Her research has identified “seven tenets of authentic leadership”: 1) cultural competency; 2) role fulfillment; 3) sense of mission; 4) good human relationships, 5) global worldview; 6) creative synchronism; and 7) virtue[2] She has worked to counter the stereotypical image of Korean women, described as submissive wives and self-sacrificing mothers.[3] Her historical research demonstrated the presence of strong female leadership in social and political areas throughout Korean history, thereby highlighting Korean women’s contribution to Korean culture. As a result she argued that a rich Asian cultural heritage can empower female moral leadership in a globalized world today.[4]

The Korean Confucian tradition and western feminism are integrated in Ko’s work on women’s leadership. Her views were largely influenced by her parents’ teachings and the education she received while still living in Korea. Her father emphasized independence and self-autonomy as a moral code, while her mother was generous in giving to and helping the poor and oppressed for education.[5] In various speeches Ko has often referred to her mother’s favorite maxim on the significance of virtue: “One’s virtue should exceed his or her skill.” While many feminists have critiqued the patriarchal Confucian tradition in East Asia, Ko instead focuses on Confucian values, which stress virtuous living, harmony, and role fulfillment. Her academic has tried to integrate western feminism and certain Korean Confucian values, in order to create ways for women to practice leadership. Just as her mother embraced progressive views yet fulfilled her traditional role as a mother and wife, Ko has been an outstanding woman leader while also successfully fulfilling her roles as a wife and mother of six children.[6] Her feminist approach reflects a conscious effort to eschew more radical approaches so that she can practice adaptive leadership in resolving conflicts between polarized parties.[7] Her approach upholds a positive paradigm of women’s leadership by focusing on successful women role models and on women’s contributions to society, rather than focusing on issues of women’s oppression and the effects of sexism.[8]

Mentorship of women is a hallmark of her work among women. In the 1990s, she brought together Korean and Korean-American female leaders at the East Rock Institute in order to dialogue with them on relevant social issues from their perspectives.[9] She also took on a leadership role at the Costa Rica Triennial Meeting for the International Association for University Presidents in 1981. As chair of the Women’s Education Program, she sought out ways to educate women in various social contexts.[10]

Finally, Ko Hyeseong-Cheon has emphasized the importance of networking among women.[11] She has argued that economically impoverished women, in particular, are able to accomplish a great deal by pooling their household resources together through intercommunity networking.[12] She also has encouraged professional women to build creative alliances to serve the larger community.[13] Her tireless advocacy on behalf of women through networking, mentoring, and her scholarship has helped to lay the groundwork for new generations of women leaders.


[1] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, “Women’s Authentic Leadership” (Seoul: Jungang-Books, 2007).

[2] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, “Authentic Leadership in Multicultural Society” (Seoul: Random House Jungang, 2006). http://www.eastrockinstitute.org/eri/authentic.htm

[3] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, “Authentic Leadership,” 2004. http://www.eastrockinstitute.org/eri/authentic.htm

[4] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, “Authentic Leadership and East Asian Values: Toward Global Leadership Values.” Lecture at 2007 World Women’s Forum, Seoul, 2007.

[5] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, interview with author, December 16, 2013.

[6] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, interview with author, December 16, 2013.

[7] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, interview with author, December 16, 2013.

[8] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, “Women’s Authentic Leadership” (Seoul: Jungang-Books, 2007), 13, 35.

[9] http://www.eastrockinstitute.org/eri/history-topic.htm

[10] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, interview with author, December 16, 2013.

[11] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, “Women’s Authentic Leadership” (Seoul: Jungang-Books, 2007), 14.

[12] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, email message to author, December 13, 2013.

[13] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, email message to author, December 13, 2013.

Written By: Hajung Lee