The stereotype of Swedish leadership (sometimes called the ‘Lagom Way’) is that it is based entirely on consensus and non-hierarchical decision-making. Some advocates call it democratic, whilst others view it as a recipe for chaos driven by a fear of conflict.
Clearly, many Swedish business leaders are doing something right – the country has the world’s highest per capita number of globally successful businesses.
So how widespread is the use of the ‘Lagom’ approach to leadership in Sweden, and is it really possible to run an organisation in such a way?
According to Ingalill Holmberg, head of the Centre for Advanced Studies in Leadership at the Stockholm School of Economics, the stereotypes are often a fair reflection of reality, for 3 reasons…
Swedes have “a distinctive and, to some extent, unique view of leadership,” Holmberg explains. “And leadership is a reflection of the culture. How we regard leadership and what makes a good leader is largely based on the conditions that shape our culture and our economy. Sweden is a country with a high degree of equality, where we have long worked hard politically and as a society to reduce major differences in power – that’s a cornerstone of Swedish society”.
Asked why so many global businesses have their roots in the Nordic nation, Holmberg replied, "We are a small country and in order to grow and be successful, we need to go out in other markets,” says Holmberg…a focus on the future and an outward orientation come naturally.”
3.The individual and the collective
According to Holmberg, the third dimension that shapes Swedish leadership culture is a strong belief in both the individual and the collective.
Whilst it may seem impossible to prioritise both, Holmberg says Swedes believe the individual's integrity and freedom is important, but also place a high value on cooperation, the group, and collective solutions. However, she denies that this approach is the result of Swedes being afraid to have an argument.
“This model for consensus is sometimes perceived by other cultures as Swedes having a fear of conflict. But I'd say that Swedes want to avoid conflicts, which isn’t quite the same thing. As a leader, you don’t want to lose team chemistry, and that requires getting agreement from everyone in the group about how to move forward.”
The next Swedish export?
Holmberg believes that the Lagom Way will be adopted by more organisations across the world.
"Today's challenges require global cooperation and a willingness to compromise when it comes to national interests, which favours a Swedish approach to leadership,” she explains. “Leadership based on consensus where change is often the strongest driving force is very well-suited to address these new types of global issues.”
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