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  • Megan Penhoet

The Future is Collaborative

Megan Penhoet, Founder/Director

Nordic Scholars Leadership Institute

21st Century Challenges Require Collaborative Approaches

The great global challenges facing us now and in the future are simply too insurmountable for any one actor to tackle alone. With artificial intelligence and machine learning revolutions already in motion, an isolated and linear approach to exponential problems is becoming increasingly insufficient. To successfully address the greatest challenges, the modern world depends upon the collaborative skills of world leaders. While there are many one-off leaders who exhibit strong collaborative leadership characteristics, for example Canada's Trudeau and Germany's Merkel, identifying an entire culture where collaborative leadership is observable in broad strokes is where real learning is possible.


At present, there may be no better example of a culture of collaboration than in the Nordics. The Nordic ability to keep cool and collaborate in times of pressure is perhaps even more striking in the wake of Brexit and the era of American isolationism and protectionism. Along with a strong culture of collaboration, the Nordic bloc has opted for a level of transparency and trustworthiness that makes its policy-making clear and easy to support. 


The Nordic Council of Ministers was established in 1971 as "...the official body for inter-governmental cooperation in the Nordic Region. It seeks solutions with visible positive effects for everybody who lives in the Nordic countries." This clear, positive and straightforward statement of purpose reflects a high level of transparency at all levels of government, industry and civil society in the Nordics. Like the open-access policies of Sweden, which pioneered open access to research publications beginning in the 1990’s, the Nordic Council of Ministers itself in 2014 instituted open access rules for itself and any research it funds.


The relationship between transparency and access implies the third ingredient: collaboration. As small, far away nations, the Nordics have to band together to be heard in some environments. While it might be a defensive move, Russia is on their borders and the West is at present buried in its own isolationist, deeply divided, historically low moment, the Nordic penchant for working together, both internally and across borders with one another, gives them a competitive edge.


How is collaboration and transparency foundational to "competitive edge"? It may not be immediately apparent to all how Sweden is second to the giant United States in producing both unicorns and pop musicians. Nordics punch above their weight in innovation, technology, pop music, transportation and artificial intelligence, and have impressive global standings in education, happiness, health and quality of life indices. And the thread running through these and other successes is collaboration. 


If collaboration is ubiquitous, it must come from the top. In 2018, the Nordic Council of Ministers commissioned a report on Nordic Leadership. The Nordic style of leadership is uncovered and analyzed. 

 Consistent prior research suggests good evidence for a distinctive Nordic leadership model or style: a cooperative model supporting creativity with high degrees of both autonomy and responsibility, with roots in early 20th century focus on balancing interests in society. The values that have guided leadership issues to date relate specifically to openness, integrity and trust.”


Nordic collaborative leadership style permeates all of modern life; from corporate boardrooms to governments, from higher education to innovation test beds. Sharing information and decision making with many stakeholders and creating policies and technologies that balance interests in society, the Nordics have created an environment that strongly supports entrepreneurship. Support for new ideas and for risk taking is strong when there is infrastructure and a high value assigned to innovation. While Sweden produces the most unicorns outside of the U.S., Finland is now the #1 startup producer in the EU. Nordic openness, access to information and a strong culture of collaboration creates this competitive edge in innovation and business. 


When all voices are valued, as in the relatively non-hierarchical organizational structures of Nordic businesses, the best ideas are surfaced. When access to information, technology, and education is easy, as in the Nordics, the number of citizens drawn to create, iterate and innovate increases. And this is why the Nordics punch above their weight. Leadership reinforces the values people regularly exhibit and live by.


The Nordics are a beacon of hope to democracies such as the United States. The U.S. struggles to provide the same level of innovative output while also keeping the needs of society solidly on the scales. Culture and leadership are intertwined to be certain. Some argue that the U.S. could never achieve the well-being scores of the Nordics because the political divide is too great, or because we lack the level of trust in one another and in government. But if we are to succeed as a country and contend with the daunting global issues we face, we must model collaborative leadership at every level of society. Whether or not the U.S. as a whole is as collaboratively inclined, we need leaders to guide us to a collaborative future.


Leaders can make outsized contributions to society. Let American leaders learn from the Nordics and influence culture for good by studying and adopting their successful leadership style. The world looks to the U.S. for leadership. Let it be collaborative leadership aimed at including the needs of society at large and mindful that economic success and societies’ needs are not mutually exclusive.


The Nordics succeed as master collaborators. Let us use this success as inspiration to lead the U.S. to a better tomorrow.


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