Threatened by Extermination: Swedish Leadership Style

LESS 2011

The first day of the LESS 2011 conference is over. I am sorry to report I am not ecstatic after the first day. There were some nice talks and some not-so-nice ones, which is to be expected, but generally I felt that the speakers spent too much time on discussing models instead of working hard on making their talk come alive and be interesting and understandable for their audience. As J. B. Rainsberger (@jbrains), a Canadian master developer, put it one of tweets during the day: “Speakers, please tell me stories. They entertain me more, and they help me understand more”.

There is much to say about the topics of the conference (Organisational Transformation, Lean & Agile Product Development, and Complexity & Systems Thinking), but tonight I am just going to settle on reflecting a bit about something that the last speaker of the day, James Sutton, author and software-systems architect, said in passing during his keynote. He mentioned that from what he had heard about management and company culture in the Scandinavian countries, they were much further along than in other countries. Basically, what he implied is that the these countries have a more sophisticated style of management. Less command and control and more people-orientation.

Are Scandinavian Bosses Better?

Is it true what James Sutton said? The answer is of course not that clear-cut. Yes, in Sweden there is a long running tradition in corporate life to achieve consensus for major decisions, but to what extent that is true today nobody really knows. Swedish managers have been ridiculed for this trait for decades now and I believe that if I were a Swedish manager I would feel the need to be a bit more “assertive”. Finnish managers were never really into consensus, I believe. And there are many silly bosses in Sweden, just like everywhere.

The other thing that normally comes up when talking about this is what is known in Sweden as the “high ceiling”. This means that it is fine to say whatever you like, even to your boss. In Sweden it is against the law to be fired for telling your boss she’s crazy. So yes, openness and transparency go hand in hand with Lean leadership style. However, there are many companies in Sweden today where this is just a faint memory. You have your boss. You see him or her occasionally. He doesn’t work with you and he doesn’t know your job. There is a distance between you both and you hesitate to criticise him and the company. This is certainly not the high ceiling culture and not uncommon in Sweden today.

And yes, collaboration and teamwork is big in Sweden, but also process and working efficiently. With all these management consultants toolheads doing “Lean” transformations, process is coming back “in a big fucking way”, to borrow a term from US pop culture. I feel the word “collaboration” has gotten a funky 70s smell in Sweden now. “We don’t have time for teamwork – results come first.” would probably not be a weird thing to say today.

Management Is Culture

Management literature, as well as other cultural influences, have long been geared towards the United States. American authors, actors, thinkers etc are very highly regarded in Sweden. If you invite an american to speak publicly, even if they have never heard of the guy, Swedes turn up in crowds. Most Swedes even try to speak English with a slight american accent. The language you speak is a clear indication of which culture is also the most highly regarded.

Given the above, I would think that it is still likely that the trends in management is to move towards a more western, traditional style of management. This implies more rules, more control, more security, more formality, and a bigger distance between the co-worker and the manager. I see a lot of this in the companies I visit or consult. I have seen very few companies that actually strive to simplify and get rid of strangling bureaucracy. And the EU sure isn’t helping.

I think is a vital to counter this movement now. Scandinavia is looking steadily towards the western shores, when we should have turned our heads towards the east some decades ago. I feel that Lean and Agile ways have an important role to play here.

2 thoughts on “Threatened by Extermination: Swedish Leadership Style

  1. I am not sure turning east is “the right way”. For instance Toyota might be Lean but only on the factory floor. Management is top down.

    But looking Other Ways than west is probably a good idea.

    • Hi LosManos!

      Thank you for your comment. I am curious as to what has made you come to the conclusion that management in Toyota is “top down”? Any references to articles? Own experiences?

      Personally, I have no other sources than literature like “Toyota Kata”, for instance. In that book it is very clear that TPS is anything but top down, but rather a pervasive culture built on values like “Respect for people”. Every employee has their own mentor, coaching them on how to improve their work processes.

      It could well be, of course, that the book paints a too rosy a picture, or that Toyota differs in other countries. It’s not like they have been without quality problems these last few years.

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