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Swedish leadership traditions through Chinese eyes
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Swedish leadership traditions through Chinese eyes

| Text: Björn Lindahl

Swedish leadership traditions are based on a great deal of trust in employees. Management presume people can work independently without the need for close supervision. But how do Swedish companies function abroad? How do you reconcile the Swedish Dala horse with the Chinese dragon?

Vinnova, the Swedish state authority in charge of promoting innovation, has commissioned the report 'Chinese views on Swedish Management'. It has been called a pilot study because very few studies of Chinese leadership culture exist. The report's author, Pär Isaksson, asked five Chinese and four Swedish company managers to describe how the company leadership manage groups, how they use consensus to make decisions and how they deal with conflicts. The stories are then discussed in work shops involving a dozen people with experience from Swedish companies in China or vice versa. 

"It could appear that Chinese and Swedes have a lot in common when it comes to their attitude to how to lead an organisation," writes Pär Isaksson.

Both countries have deeply routed traditions for qualification-led careers. Chinese Confucianism stipulated that an intelligent and hard working farmer's son was equally fit to work in the emperor's household as someone from a rich family. Both countries try to avoid aggressive confrontations as a means to solving problems. Business leaders aren't considered 'heroes' like in the USA, UK or France. Both Chinese and Swedes prefer a group-oriented leadership style.

It is central to Swedish leadership culture to allow workers to be part of the decision-making process, which in turn makes them more efficient and in need of less supervision. Business leaders don't have to be experts in everything themselves, nor do they need to micro manage. Swedish business leaders focus on making it easy for employees to manage their tasks on their own. One of the Swedish leaders taking part in the study put it this way:

"It doesn't matter how something is done. Focus must rest on creation and on delivering a result. It's about trust. In our company, for instance, we have decentralised all contacts with the media. All our project leaders are free to answer media questions." 

Hierarchy and control is more important in Chinese leadership culture. Many companies have 'only one pen' - i.e. all economic decisions are signed by only one person. Leaders are expected to know more than the employees. 

"A Chinese leader must know all the details of a business. In a technical setting he or she must be one of the best engineers," says one of the Chinese study participants. 

One example quoted was the 2009 Boao forum - a conference for business leaders held in Southern China. The leader of one of China's larges consumer electronics companies, TLC, was asked what mistakes he'd made in the past few years. Despite being prompted several times he refused to answer the question. Swedish leaders from Ericsson and Volvo, on the other hand, gladly talked about serious mistakes they'd made, and about what they'd learnt from making them. 

"Such openness is not controversial in Swedish culture. It reflects the view that a leader first and foremost should play the role of coach and not be a symbol for the company," writes Pär Isaksson.

The Swedish leadership tradition which seems to be the most ill-fitting in China is when leaders in Swedish daughter companies want to allow workers take part in important meetings, so they can get information about the company and get a chance to air their views. The Chinese workers will attend, but rarely say what they think. Their respect for authorities is too strong. Yet the Chinese happily air their views to their leader when others aren't present. 

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