Are you sometimes wondering what makes Nordic Business Leaders so unique in a global context? We may come from small countries, but with great innovation capabilities, we have the know how to build great companies ready to do good in the world – focused on more than just short-term profit and the bottom line.
Times are changing and so is the need for a new leadership paradigm. The rapid discoveries, innovations and developments demands a different style of leadership. It is the leader’s role as a navigator of change, and as a guide towards the future, to make sense of what is seen by many as a period of increased complexity.
Are there aspects of our Nordic style that could be beneficial in this rapidly changing and evolving world? Can they provide answers to a new leadership paradigm? What methods and techniques long-established in the Nordics can prove to be of relevance and practicable when working on a global level?
In this blogpost we will take a closer look at how the unique Nordic competences trust, care, openness, transparency, and responsiveness could support the change in global companies.
The Nordic history
The history of the Nordic region is one characterized by adventure, curiosity, and a dependency on the outside world. The Nordic nations understand that their own survival has been reliant upon looking outwards, participating in international communities rather than on insularity and isolation.
The history of the region is one of exploration and discovery, constant adaptation to complex environments, networked communities dispersed over a large area, innovation within creative constraints, continuous learning, facilitated from childhood and on through adult education, the celebration of the collective alongside the individual and a willingness to experiment over and over again.
The outlook of the Nordic people is phlegmatic. We are accustomed to circumstances changing at short notice, requiring responding to whatever new context emerges. Nordic people are also aware of the small size of their nations and of the disproportionate but significant role they play on the world stage.
This also means that Nordic people provide a creative, simplified and unbureaucratic perspective on what is going on, and about how to take advantage of opportunities and resolve issues. Nordic people speak their mind and are raised to do so. Access to and openness of Nordic Business leadership is unique and makes people meet each other as equals. In other words, it is the low power distance, clarity and straightforwardness and the flat organizational structures in which Nordic Business Leaders can be approached easily that makes the leadership style unique.
Leadership occurs when other people respond to someone’s authenticity and choose to follow them, not through the assertion of rank and status. Authority exists to provide help, guidance, and structure. It is not to be feared but to be engaged with, questioned, and constructively challenged.
Trust plays a special role
Trust plays a special role in the Nordics as it is the foundation stone for how the Nordic society works. It informs how we interact with each other; it explains our approach to leadership, and it is an enabler for many other aspects of our leadership style. Without trust our emphasis on openness, transparency, delegation, self-direction, teamwork, and equality would be undermined. Trust enables people to move swiftly from introduction to decision to action. Trust results in efficiency and effectiveness, helping to save time and money in the long-term.
Trust is the societal glue that is there by default rather than having to be earned, as is the case in many other cultures. In the Nordic region trust is granted unconditionally and with it comes an expectation that they will do it right. It oils the decision-making process, enabling people to bypass small talk and move straight on to what is important, and it allows young kids to climb trees without supervision.
Trust stems from respectful human connections that disregard otherness and highlights what we have in common. Many Nordic Business Leaders conclude that: “In essence we are all the same. We are all humans, driven by the same need for love, belonging to a community and contributing something meaningful in our lives”.
In a global context it is often the case that the Nordic leader is responsible for overseeing change. It is imperative that the foreign leader recognizes that it is they who are the embodiment of change for their colleagues when they work with other cultures. How quickly they can move from fear of the unknown that they represent to trust of their leader is usually indicative of future success.
In the Nordics, part of our leadership philosophy is reflected by the phrase “freedom with responsibility”. This captures the notion that people enjoy personal freedom but assume responsibility in a communal context.
A Nordic Business Leaders role is therefore to create a nurturing environment where people feel engaged and can flourish, where they feel safe and free to speak their mind, experiment and make mistakes and are empowered to move things forward by making their own decisions. Such a supportive environment, and the sense that an individual’s personal purpose is somehow aligned with that of the organization they work for, creates happiness at work.
Simon Sinek has suggested that the “the real job of a leader is not about being in charge, it is about taking care of the people in your charge”. Coming back to Nordic Business Leaders, they typically have a strong sense of responsibility for those who work alongside them. In other words, the Nordic way of trusting people and caring for people and putting responsibility out in the open helps build people up.
A popular metaphor is looking at the leader as a gardener. You cannot make a plant grow by commanding it to do so. You must create the right environment where it can flourish, watering it, ensuring there is enough sunlight and air. Only then will the plant grow. As opposed to seeing the leadership style as a game of chess.
Nordic Business Leaders are great at connecting with their colleagues on a personal level. This makes them establish strong trust-based relationships. People come first. A Nordic style of leadership can be mistaken for softness. Hence it is important to be clear about objectives and responsibilities.
Nordic Business Leaders are typically very open. They have a willingness to share information. They are aware of the fact that if you want people to do their best, to really question everything that they do and see how they can improve it, then it really does not fit with a very closed an authoritarian style.
The solution to complex problems is rarely found in the board room and often require seeking beyond the bounds of your own company. Looking outward and tapping into networked knowledge is necessary in order, to retain relevance in an ever-shifting, ever-adapting world. The ability to remain openminded as we immerse ourselves with other cultures enables us to challenge our own preconceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. Leading us to question what we believe in and why. If we remain closed-minded, dependent on the habitual and indifferent to other ways, we become blinded to the potential for change and the opportunities that offer.
As also mentioned in the introduction, the notion of low power distance is a significant factor in how Nordics lead. The flat organizational structures they favor have the effect of making themselves more accessible and approachable. To maintain visibility as a leader it is important that you put yourself at the same level as your team. In doing so you make communication, explanation, contextualization, delegation, coaching and problem-solving much easier to accomplish.
It is good to speak openly about what you do, why you do it, what information you base your decisions on, why you ask for input and why you think it is important to draw on the knowledge and experience of others. In other words, help people understand how you lead and why these methods can be effective. It is about remaining open and willing to show your vulnerability.
Nordic Business Leaders are good at adapting and providing the flexibility needed to move forward. It is called Nordic pragmatism. If you have plans and procedures that do not seem to work, you change them. If you have plans to go fishing and the weather deteriorates you adapt and make another plan. This is simply part of the Nordic way of life. Experimentation, supplemented by review, learning and adaptation are all part of the responsive sensibility advocated by Nordic Business Leaders.
“If you do not dare you will not win”. In the Nordics we have a more open attitude towards change and experimentation. Courage is a crucial factor behind the willingness to experiment. Continuous experimentation is needed if organizations are to innovate and find solutions for complex problems.
In other words, make plans, dream, imagine and draft multiple scenarios. The more scenarios you must hand the more you will be able to react and respond to the problems and opportunities. Be ready and willing to pivot, to abandon one plan and switch to another.
Alis Sindbjerg Hinrichsen works for Optilon and is especially passionate about everything that connects the Supply Chain strategy with the business strategy. She is also interested in what makes people and companies more change ready.
With inspiration from Pernille Hippe Bruns book: On the move, lessons for the future.