What’s so special about Swedish leadership?

Consensus-based, team-focused and non-hierarchical. Swedish leadership is often described as leadership "the lagom way".

What’s so special about Swedish leadership?
Professor Ingalill Holmberg from the Stockholm School of Economics is one of Sweden's leading experts in leadership research. Photo: SSE Ex Ed

But how do we separate fact from fiction when it comes to this Swedish stereotype? Does “moderate” leadership even exist?

“Absolutely”, says Ingalill Holmberg, Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics and one of Sweden's leading experts in leadership research.

Generally, “lagom” is used to describe things done in moderation – neither too much nor too little. And while it may lack a direct translation in most other languages, “lagom” has nevertheless become the preferred label when describing Swedish leadership culture.

But is it true that Swedish managers are really so “lagom”?

After all, despite its relatively small size isolated location, Sweden boasts among the highest number of globally successful companies per capita in the world.

Is it possible to run a company “the lagom way” and still be so successful? What does the research actually say?

'Leadership is a reflection of culture'

Ingalill Holmberg is a professor at the Department of Management at the Stockholm School of Economics and head of the Center for Advanced Studies in Leadership.

Her entire academic and professional career has focused on leadership. Thus, few people are in a better position to provide answers when it comes to figuring what really defines “Swedish” leadership.

“There’s no doubt Swedes have a distinctive and, to some extent, unique view of leadership,” she 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.”

Holmberg adds that many of the stereotypes about Swedish leadership being non-hierarchical and consensus-driven do in fact fit reality.

Learn more about “leadership the lagom way”

“What matters is the relationship we have culturally to power and influence. 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 been a cornerstone of Swedish society over the last 100 years,” she says.

A view of the Stockholm School of Economics campus near the city centre. Photo: SSE Executive Education

In addition, Ingalill explains, Swedish business leaders have always put great emphasis on the future and change. As a result, companies have been forced to deal with uncertainty. And one way of successfully addressing these uncertainties is through a pragmatic approach based on rational thinking and rational solutions.

“A big reason behind the development of Swedish entrepreneurship is that we are a small country and in order to grow and be successful, we need to go out in other markets,” says Holmberg. “Thus a focus on the future and an outward orientation come naturally.”

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A third dimension that shapes Swedish leadership culture is a strong belief in both the individual and the collective, says Holmberg.

While these two concepts may be on opposite ends of the values scale, Sweden gets high marks for both. Swedes believe the individual's integrity and freedom is important, while at the same time placing a high value on cooperation, the group, and collective solutions.

Well-suited for global challenges

“This has resulted in focusing more on the team and less on the organization as a whole. And the importance of reaching agreement within the team,” says Holmberg.

“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.”

She also believes that conditions are ripe for “lagom” leadership to gain increased importance internationally, in line with developments globally.

“Today's challenges, with climate change as perhaps most important example, 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.”


Do you want to learn more about “leadership the lagom way”?

Click here for more information about Swedish leadership and how this small country achieved big success in the global economy.

SSE Executive Education has trained many prominent Swedish business leaders since its founding 50 years ago; executives and managers who now hold positions all around the world.

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This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by SSE Executive Education


Swedish opposition proposes ‘rapid tests for ADHD’ to cut gang crime

The Moderate Party in Stockholm has called for children in so called "vulnerable areas" to be given rapid tests for ADHD to increase treatment and cut gang crime.

Swedish opposition proposes 'rapid tests for ADHD' to cut gang crime

In a press release, the party proposed that treating more children in troubled city areas would help prevent gang crime, given that “people with ADHD diagnoses are “significantly over-represented in the country’s jails”. 

The idea is that children in so-called “vulnerable areas”, which in Sweden normally have a high majority of first and second-generation generation immigrants, will be given “simpler, voluntary tests”, which would screen for ADHD, with those suspected of having the neuropsychiatric disorder then put forward for proper evaluations to be given by a child psychiatrist. 

“The quicker you can put in place measures, the better the outcomes,” says Irene Svenonius, the party’s leader in the municipality, of ADHD treatment, claiming that children in Sweden with an immigrant background were less likely to be medicated for ADHD than other children in Sweden. 

In the press release, the party said that there were “significant differences in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD within Stockholm country”, with Swedish-born children receiving diagnosis and treatment to a higher extent, and with ADHD “with the greatest probability” underdiagnosed in vulnerable areas. 

At a press conference, the party’s justice spokesman Johan Forsell, said that identifying children with ADHD in this areas would help fight gang crime. 

“We need to find these children, and that is going to help prevent crime,” he said. 

Sweden’s climate minister Annika Strandhäll accused the Moderates of wanting to “medicate away criminality”. 

Lotta Häyrynen, editor of the trade union-backed comment site Nya Mitten, pointed out that the Moderates’s claim to want to help children with neuropsychiatric diagnoses in vulnerable areas would be more credible if they had not closed down seven child and youth psychiatry units. 

The Moderate Party MP and debater Hanif Bali complained about the opposition from left-wing commentators and politicians.

“My spontaneous guess would have been that the Left would have thought it was enormously unjust that three times so many immigrant children are not getting a diagnosis or treatment compared to pure-Swedish children,” he said. “Their hate for the Right is stronger than their care for the children. 

Swedish vocab: brottsförebyggande – preventative of crime