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  • Writer's pictureMegan Penhoet

Sweden: The New Superpower

Covid-19 is the newest global enemy. So where are the superpowers?

I work in the leadership education and training arena and am always on the lookout for leadership inspiration- wherever it happens. As much of the world's population is hunkering down at home watching the news, feeling emotions that range from boredom to panic, I have been on the lookout for examples of inspired leadership at a time when it really matters. While no country's policies are perfect, Sweden's have stood out to me as among the most measured, clearly-communicated, transparent and innovative.

I follow Swedish news regularly but pay attention to EU and global news as well. And while Germany and Canada have appeared measured and calm in my estimations, and the U.S., well, remarkably disappointing and confusing, I have watched Swedish leadership address the myriad challenges that Covid-19 has foisted upon us with decisive, thoughtful and inspired responses. Take their approach to shutting schools down for example. Based on what the public health authority knew of the virus so far, and mindful of how society functions, they only shut down upper secondary and university studies. The rationale for this was that children ages 16 and older are better able to manage remote learning, care for themselves without a parent, and have longer distances to travel to and from school. Keeping these students off of public transportation and in their homes, while still learning remotely would help stop the spread of the virus.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven took to the airwaves to address students after this decision was made and said more or less: "Students, this is not an extra vacation. You are still expected to learn and try. You are old enough to manage distance learning and show self discipline. You can do this." I am paraphrasing from his Swedish address. I stopped dead in my tracks when I heard this report. Good gracious! I only wish the president of the United States addressed the 80 million or so American students with such a message of support and encouragement. I found this level of national leadership aimed at Sweden's 16-25 year olds to be personal and powerful.

Sweden's approach to school closure in the face of Covid-19 has been a very open discussion. Repeatedly the health minister has said they have held off on closing primary and elementary schools because the parents who would have to stay home to care for their children are an essential part of the healthcare, transportation and service infrastructure. He has explained that if families turned to grandparents to care for children this might put older Swedes at greater risk than is necessary. While Sweden may well close primary and elementary schools in the future, parliament is proactively debating how to address the existing employment rules that currently do not compensate parents for staying home with healthy children. It looks likely that parliament will pass legislation to allow parents to be compensated with a rule change. That is in my estimation proactive leadership for societal good.

Not only has Sweden's thoughtful and transparent handling of the outbreak impressed me with it's common sense and science based approach, I have been equally struck by two incredibly quick pandemic-driven innovations. The first is a clever logistical answer to a big Swedish nightmare: the lay off of 10,000 SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) employees coupled with too few healthcare professionals to face a pandemic. Sweden's response? Sophiahemmet, Novare and the Wallenberg Foundations are creating and funding the rapid health care training of the laid-off SAS staff. Brilliant! This pilot will be scaled up to meet the uncommonly great Covid-19 health care challenges. Wallenberg Foundations AB Director Oscar Stege Unger said:

"We hope that this fast-trained staff will be able to relieve those who are well-trained and who are needed in the more critical care of Corona virus. This feels like an incredibly good first step in being able to contribute. We're trying to act fast now and learn. Hopefully in the next step this can include many more, both laid-off staff from other companies as well as organizations with large recruitment needs in the near future."

Bravo. Inspired innovation in a time of real national crisis. That's public/private partnership and leadership at its best.

The second example I find equally inspiring. As teachers in Sweden face unchartered territory in nationally mandated remote-learning in secondary education, Carl Health, VP of Education at the Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) got busy right away. He is collaborating with educators to create a virtual gathering space for teachers and students leveraging the nation's 100 innovation centers and best minds in edutech. He said:

"I have never been part of a collaborative project that has been as intense, rewarding and challenging as the one we just launched in a collaboration between skolverket, RISE, SKR, Swedish Edtech Industry and UR. Together with school principals, teachers, principals, researchers and university librarians, we have been working around the clock since Thursday to create a gathering place - school at home - for school staff to prepare and the activities to continue teaching in complex circumstances, when both teachers and students can be at home. The site is just established and will evolve over time. The work could not have been done without an outstanding team from many organizations, in difficult circumstances where everyone worked at home or remotely around the country. Thank you all who contributed! "

Both of these examples hint at Sweden's superpowers; Sweden = Fast. Smart. Effective. Entrepreneurial. Transparent. Science-focused. These are all qualities of good leadership and certainly important at the national level, especially during a crisis. I think these two responses to the societal challenges of a pandemic demonstrate something even more powerful: purpose. Leaders rarely lead without a clear vision and mission in mind. Sweden responds with a clear purpose: use our resources to solve problems and serve society with transparency.

Riksbank's governor Stefan Ingers when interviewed about the bank's decision to make 500B SEK available to banks to help small businesses over the next 24 months, said:

"There are these times when there are certain things that you HAVE to do if you are part of a society."

If only other countries could so rapidly, creatively and purposefully respond to "wicked problems" such as pandemics and the climate crisis, what a wonderful world it would be.

Sweden is a small country, and flies under the radar a lot. Some know it to be the country that "punches above its weight" especially in tech innovation, sustainability and pop music. Taken all together, Sweden's impressive statistics - high government transparency and voter turn out, gender equality, pro-social parental leave policies, free education and universal health care etc.- are the hallmarks of a democratic super-power. Imagine if a country as large as the U.S. had implemented such creative Covid-19 ideas as quickly, and imagine if U.S. leadership had offered the same caliber of pro-social, intelligent and positive messaging in the media. We might well refer to the U.S. in that case as a super power once more. Sweden, show us the way!

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