What is Swedish-style leadership or how Sweden has managed to produce the largest number of major corporations per head of population?
MERIT Summit Speaker Anders Richtnér, Associate Professor and CEO of Stockholm School of Economics, gives his views based on his extensive experience from both an academic and a commercial perspective.
The Lexin Swedish-English dictionary defines lagom as "enough, sufficient, adequate, just right". Lagom is also widely translated as "in moderation", "in balance", "perfect-simple", and "suitable" (in matter of amounts). Whereas words like sufficient and average suggest some degree of abstinence, scarcity, or failure, lagom carries the connotation of appropriateness, although not necessarily perfection." (Dufour, F. (2017) Exploring the Possibilities for the Emergence of a Single and Global Native Language, p199)
1. Trust keeps pace with global developments
A typical feature of Sweden’s trademark leadership style is trust, a factor that is becoming increasingly critical even in organisations with a hierarchical culture.
It used to be that, as a manager, you would have a fairly good overview of your own company, your competitors and the society in which you operated. With today’s fast pace of development, which is also so much more diverse, you don’t have a chance of keeping up as an individual. You are basically forced to rely on other people.
2. Curiosity drives innovation
In a small, export-dependent nation like Sweden, companies have had to go out into the world, understand the needs of others and learn from other people’s successes. Many have also been quick to come back and translate what they have learned into practical action. This not only shows courage but also indicates an entrepreneurial and creative spirit.
It is not just the larger corporations that have enjoyed international success – a general sense of curiosity about foreign trends can also be found in smaller domestic players. There is a tradition of looking outwards in every kind of business and organisation. Municipalities go on study visits and make contacts all over the world, Swedish schools are twinned with schools in other countries. When you are constantly absorbing external influences, you begin to question your own habitual patterns of behaviour – which is crucial for continuously moving forward and developing.
3. Inclusion makes decisions more effective
We are good at getting others on board with our decisions; it is part of our cultural heritage. The other side of the coin is that the process can be slow sometimes. But while getting everyone on board can be inefficient, the decision paths are short in the flat organisations that have such a strong presence among Swedish employers. So in the end, decentralisation leads to a decision-making process that in many ways is actually quite effective.
The companies that do well are past masters at getting employees on board and placing decision-making a long way out in the organisation, so they avoid drawn-out internal processes. Those who are closest to the customers know best what those customers need.
4. Sustainability creates long-term companies
The Swedish model involves understanding business on quite a broad front and not just being fixated on the financials. Our focus is on ensuring that managers and leaders are skilled and well-versed in all three aspects of General Management: business, management and leadership.
Lasting success depends on sustainable leadership. To some extent, it comes down to what sort of person you are and whether you are authentic in your role. Do you listen to other people? Do you make time for your co-workers? Do you set clear demands and clear objectives? It is things like this that create sustainability.
5. Ideas and openness keep the ball rolling
Swedish companies subject themselves to a great deal of self-criticism and foster a climate of listening. This is closely linked to a constant drawing on ideas from other countries. Many successful companies also have a very multicultural base, which is another driver of development within the organisation.
So “Swedish” leadership is a culturally embedded concept relating to factors such as openness, lack of hierarchy, informality and a permissive climate.
Leadership is largely about improving day by day in small steps, never standing still, and constantly topping up knowledge levels. The key is to make it ingrained and automatic, just like when you brush your teeth each morning. Similarly, you can seek out new ideas or new inspiration on a daily basis. If you do things slightly differently each day, it will eventually become a habit, and that will force you to develop.
This article was kindly provided by Anders Richtnér, Associate Professor and CEO of Stockholm School of Economics (Sweden) Executive Education. You can hear Anders present a case study of a Design Innovation Programme co-created with of Northers Europe’s Leading Financial Institutions on 17 January 2019 at the MERIT Summit Vienna.