The Unlikely Candidates: Why Hideyoshi and Sejong Make Good Leaders, Despite Their Strange Temperaments

King Sejong of Korea, young and old, from "Tree with Deep Roots"

King Sejong of Korea, young and old, from Tree with Deep Roots

Many leadership theories today posit that picking a leader out of a group is easy; they stand out above the rest. Both Taiko and Tree with Deep Roots initially portray their leaders, Hideyoshi and Sejong, as somewhat ill-suited to lead. However, as they grow, both come to exemplify trait, style, and situational leadership approaches through their seemingly-odd behavior.

Trait Leadership

Trait leadership theory (which you can learn more about here) describes the idea that a few key traits can be used to distinguish a leader from a non-leader. After aggregating the seminal studies on trait leadership, it can be concluded that the five key traits of leadership, if ascribing to the trait theory, are intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity, and sociability (Northouse 23). Hideyoshi and Sejong both display all of these in varying degrees, though integrity and self-confidence are especially prominent in Hideyoshi, and intelligence and determination are particularly evident in Sejong. (Find out how you score on a more in-depth trait leadership questionnaire here!)

Seppuku, or ritual suicide, traditionally committed by a samurai as atonement for sins

Seppuku, or ritual suicide, traditionally committed by a samurai as atonement for sins

The Integrity of Hideyoshi’s Beliefs

Hideyoshi sometimes seems to rush into things and is often given to jumping to violence as a solution, particularly in his earlier days. A great example of this is his frequent willingness to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide, for the smallest offenses. On multiple occasions and to multiple people, Hideyoshi offers this punishment as atonement for sometimes the simplest of mistakes, which at first glance might indicate that he doesn’t really mean what he’s offering. For instance, when Nobunaga orders Hideyoshi to kill General Osawa, and Hideyoshi reveals the plot, he offers to apologize by disembowelling himself (Yoshikawa 271). Here, it seems that Hideyoshi was just using the offer of seppuku to manipulate Osawa into killing himself, rather than making Hideyoshi do it. But if we look deeper, we see that Hideyoshi is really very serious, and this leads to the belief that he is incredibly courageous, sometimes to the point of apparent foolishness, but he sticks to his convictions. He would give his life willingly if it were in the service of his master or in the name of greater honor, dying a samurai’s death. What at first glance seems like impatience or squeamishness suddenly takes shape as strong conviction in his beliefs and a desire to deliver on his promises; these combined with his constant quest for a samurai’s honor indicate integrity and self-confidence, characterized in the trait approach by “feel[ing] assured that his… attempts to influence others are appropriate and right,” (Northouse 24) and “tak[ing] responsibility for [his] actions” (Northouse 25).

One of the scholars that died for Sejong's alphabet research in autopsy

One of the scholars that died for Sejong’s alphabet research in autopsy

Sejong’s Persistence

In Tree with Deep Roots, King Sejong’s commitment to Jip Hyun Jun and his Joseon is evident from the very minute he stands up to his father, but at times, he seems rather foolish and stubborn in his commitment. Beginning in Episode 4, the series shows scholars being killed systematically and mysteriously while doing the work of the king. Murders of the people doing your work might be cause to stop and reevaluate for most men, but Sejong persists with his work, despite the clear and present danger. This concerns many of his scholars, as well as his trusted advisor Mu Hyul, who, after just the first death, says that if, “Go In Sul was killed because of ‘that'” – that meaning Sejong’s alphabet research – “this is quite serious… The killer tried quite hard to mimic an accident. It was a planned murder. And he wanted… [the] Scroll of Biba. He must have known our plan,” (Episode 4, 34:00). Despite this, Sejong forges ahead, achieving his goal despite the losses. This looks reckless at first glance, as though Sejong has no care for who dies for the cause, but on the flip side, it demonstrates his determination. Couple this with the skill and creativity it took to conceive and create this alphabet, and Sejong appears as one of the most intelligent leaders in history. These two traits are especially key to the trait approach to leadership, demonstrating his “initiative… and… [his] perseverance in the face of obstacles” (Northouse 25).

The Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid of Style Approach to Leadership

The Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid of Style Approach to Leadership

Stylistic Leadership

The style approach to leadership emphasizes the behavior of the leader, rather than the personality. It posits that “leadership is composed of two general kinds of behaviors: task behaviors and relationship behaviors,” (Northouse 75). Its defining tool for measurement, Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid, explains “how leaders… reach their purposes through two factors: concern for production and concern for people,” (78). Sejong starts out as a recipient of his father’s Authority-Compliance Management (which you can read more about on the grid link) but quickly discovers that this is not the way, while Hideyoshi changes his style of leadership in order to further himself, which is known as opportunism.

The empty lunchbox Taejong sends to Lee Do, essentially a suicide order

The empty lunchbox Taejong sends to Lee Do, essentially a suicide order

Sejong’s Battle of Wits

At the beginning of the series, Sejong, known at this point as Lee Do, hides from his father and his responsibilities by playing Sudoku. Clearly, he’s intelligent, but he’s too afraid for it to do any good: not a great quality for a leader. When his father sends him this empty lunchbox, it’s all the push he needs. He sees his Sudoku game in the lunchbox, and not only is he able to solve the game in the box, he solves his giant puzzle on the floor. He’s found his own way, through this math game and his game of wits with his father, to rule, rather than using his father’s way. Before sending the box, Taejong ridicules his son for his games and gave Lee Do his advice: “Remove every number except the one,” (paraphrased from Episode 2, 01:01:15), which is to say, keep all the power to yourself, and then you win. Lee Do decides his Joseon requires balance between politics and intelligence. He uses his father’s suicide order not only to beat the game but to throw off his father’s tyrannical leadership. It is here, through this battle of wits, that Lee Do begins to discover his particular style of leadership, Team Management (according to the Management Grid in the style approach to leadership) in his leading of Jip Hyun Jun.

Hideyoshi rides into battle

Hideyoshi rides into battle

Hideyoshi’s Questionable Growth

Over the course of Taiko‘s events, it is clear that Hideyoshi grows and changes as a leader. However, according to the style approach of leadership, these changes may not be for the better. Opportunism is defined as “us[ing] any combination of the basic five styles for the purpose of personal advancement… adapt[ing] and shift[ing] his… style to gain personal advantage, putting self-interest ahead of other priorities,” (Northouse 82). It’s clear that Hideyoshi’s style begins as almost Paternalistic (a “benevolent dictator” style, where the leader acts graciously but for the furthering of task achievement); this is best exemplified in his leading of the wall construction at Nobunaga’s castle. He yells at the men, but insists on better working conditions so that they will work harder but happier. He gave them mandatory rests, and at dinnertime, “sake and food had been put into piles as high as mountains… [Hideyoshi]… raised his cup,” (Yoshikawa 162) and set an example for the men, encouraging them to drink. Here, we already see him morphing into a Team Management-style leader, which continues into his leading of his first group of soldiers in the first battle; later, when Nobunaga gives him control of three entire armies to fight the Mori clan, he switches back to a Paternalistic style, evident in his treatment of the pages. He’s also not afraid to use a more task-oriented style at times, likely classified as Authority-Compliance, and with each new change of style, Nobunaga seems to reward him. Each switch is calculated specifically for personal gain; whether this is “strategic” in a positive light, or “cunning” in a more negative light is up to whose side you take.

The Situational Leadership Model, depicting the four different styles

The Situational Leadership Model, depicting the four different styles

Situational Leadership

The premise of situational leadership is “that different situations demand different kinds of leadership… that leaders match their style to the competence and commitment of the subordinates,” (Northouse 99). According to this model, there are four different styles of leadership – directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating – which you can find out more about here. Hideyoshi and Sejong are both great situational leaders, in that they each use at least three of the four different styles.

Hideyoshi climbs Mount Inaba

Hideyoshi climbs Mount Inaba

Hideyoshi’s Sixth Sense

Hideyoshi has a strange knack for giving just the right responses and playing just the right role in order to make someone react in a way that favors him – in short, he’s manipulative. Traditionally, this is not a positive quality in a leader. He shows people what he wants them to see, especially his adversaries. One of the best illustrations of this is Hideyoshi convincing Koroku and his ronin to join Nobunaga‘s forces. Even Koroku himself warned Hideyoshi against such a foolish argument: “You’re just making your opponent angry, and I really don’t want to get angry at a youngster like you. Why don’t you leave before you’ve gone too far?” (Yoshikawa 255). But by some clever convincing on Hideyoshi’s part, and maybe a little luck, Koroku agrees to his former servant’s proposal. This encounter really shows Hideyoshi’s insight on how to get what he wants out of people. In this particular instance, Hideyoshi is using a directing style of leadership, where he uses high directive (task-oriented) and low supportive (relationship-oriented) behaviors to influence Koroku. However, there are other times throughout the book where he uses a coaching style, which requires both high directive and supportive behaviors, as with his soldiers, and a supporting style, using low directive and high supportive behaviors, as with some peers that he finds beneath him, like Ranmaru (Yoshikawa 451). His willingness to adapt to his audience really shows off his situational style of leadership.

Sejong reveals his alphabet to some of his scholars

Sejong reveals his alphabet to some of his scholars

Sejong’s Deceit

In Tree with Deep Roots, King Sejong’s ultimate plan is to create and distribute a brand new Korean alphabet to more widely and fairly distribute the power and wealth throughout his kingdom. However, while he is in the process of creating it, he has to lie to many people, even those close to him, to conceal his plans before he is ready to reveal them. Lying isn’t exactly a traditionally positive indicator of someone’s leadership ability. In Episode 9, Sejong reveals his secret to a few of his scholars, both of whom have been unwittingly assisting him in building his language. Immediately, they are appalled that their king would hide such a large, important project from them, especially when they are supposed to be assisting him! Sejong’s lies actually demonstrate a delegating style of situational leadership – low directive and supportive behaviors – that, in this case, was actually a very smart choice. It kept his plans from being revealed before he wanted them to be, and it minimized a lot of the danger in which Sejong put both himself and his scholars. Throughout the series, he also uses a supportive style, highly supporting but rarely directing So Yi, a directing style, highly directing but rarely supporting his counsel, and a coaching style, highly supporting and directing his scholars by day at Jip Hyun Jun. Sejong is clearly a very intelligent, discerning situational leader, despite his questionable actions in doing so.


Though they may make some questionable decisions and harbor some nontraditional traits, both Hideyoshi and Sejong meet and demonstrate the main points of trait leadership, style leadership, and situational leadership incredibly well. Some may disagree with some of their choices as leaders, both in their times and today, but it must be acknowledged that they were both great leaders who changed their kingdoms in monumental ways and accomplished incredible things.


Northouse, Peter. Leadership: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2013. 19-27, 75-83, 99-103. Print.

Tree with Deep Roots. Writ. Lee Jung Myung. Dir. Jang Tao Yoo and Shin Kyung Soo. SBS, 2011. DramaFever.

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan. 1st. New York City: Kodansha, 2012. Print.

Image Citations (in order of appearance):

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.