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Being president of the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) is interesting, challenging and more difficult than I anticipated. My own need for role models and inspiring examples of leaders who give back to society becomes more obvious to me with every day that passes.
Staffan Burenstam Linder (1931–2000), president of SSE between 1986 and 1995, has provided inspiration to me throughout my career. I think about him more frequently these days, particularly as I sit in meeting after meeting in the office where he worked during his years as president. Not because I believe he did everything right during his tenure as leader of SSE – in fact, I think that he made several serious mistakes – but because Mr Linder had a bold and ambitious vision of what a business school should be and why, and he dared to challenge conventional thinking.
As a leader and theorist, Mr Linder was at least thirty years ahead of his time. Not always right, but early.
His service as president of SSE took place toward the end of a notable international career as an economist, author and politician. In fact, he had four quite different but equally distinguished careers, each of which was hallmarked by a sense of service, independent thinking, and a need to give something back to society.
As a student of Bertil Ohlin (the Swedish economist and winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Economics), Mr Linder specialised in international economics. In his 1961 PhD thesis (“An Essay on Trade and Transformation”) he made a simple but important observation, known as the “Linder Thesis”.
Contemporary international trade theory showed that trade should take place between countries that were different in terms of their endowment – in relative terms – of labour and capital. His thesis proposed that these comparative advantages became even more pronounced in countries that were similar in terms of resource endowments. His flexible and innovative mind also led him to write a popular book on the increasing scarcity of time. The Harried Leisure Class, published in 1970, became a best seller and remains entertaining and thought-provoking. The book’s primary point, of which Mr Linder was an excellent example, was that one should do one thing at a time. He held that the main reason for the accelerated tempo of everyday life was the increasing diversity of activities: by trying to do everything nothing is accomplished. As he said in an interview with Time magazine when the book was published: “I find it paradoxical that as income rises, we are all running like hell.”
Mr Linder’s second career was in Swedish national politics. He was rapidly successful in the conservative party as vice chairman and a member of the Swedish parliament, and established himself early on as a vociferous and effective critic of industrial policy in general and state-owned enterprises in particular. When the non-socialist parties won the national elections in 1976 and formed a new government, Mr Linder became minister of industry.
After losing the elections in 1982 and a period as opposition MP, he was appointed president of SSE in 1986. At the time, SSE was a well-respected business school in insular Sweden, with no apparent international ambitions.
As president of SSE, Mr Linder understood that the importance of higher education, for individuals and for countries, could only increase. He was also convinced that without an internationally competitive business school in Sweden, the leaders of the major Swedish companies would inevitably be succeeded by non-Swedes and headquarters of major companies would inevitably move away from Sweden, effectively sidelining the country economically. Mr Linder realised that Sweden’s influence on international politics was critically dependent on the intellectual calibre of Sweden’s higher education system.
In 1985, Mr Linder boldly (and very publicly) declared that SSE would become a world-class business school. That statement was the cause of many hidden smiles and gentle lectures on the impossibility of attaining such a goal.
Yet his ambitions had a profound and long-lasting impact on the school and its development. Quite suddenly, the norm of comparison was no longer other Swedish educational institutions, but rather the world’s leading business schools. Five years later, companies from across Europe were competing for our finance graduates.
What lessons can be drawn from his ambitions? First, that a school providing high quality business education is an important national asset. In other words, being president of such a school is a very important task. How else could one endure endless meetings and ceaseless memos without the conviction that the job is critical?
Second, a clear vision about how a school should develop is an absolutely essential tool for the everyday work of a president. Only history can tell whether or not it was a good vision. But without communicating clearly what the school will be, there is no way to inspire faculty and staff, and stagnation is inevitable. While such a vision is necessary, it is not sufficient. In order for things to move forward, a significant portion of that mysterious input called “leadership” is also required.
Mr Linder’s tenure as president of SSE lasted nearly 10 years, after which he started his fourth career, as member of the European Parliament, taking to heart his life-long focus on a European society. He was successful, but a serious illness forced him to retire in 2000 and he passed away shortly after.
Staffan Burenstam Linder made a profound impact on me and on management education in Sweden. The job of a business school president is to educate and train young minds, preparing them to go out and change the world.
Each spring, as I stand on the steps of Stockholm City Hall and present diplomas one by one to new graduates, I hope that each will make a positive impact on the world. Many will, of course. But very few will distinguish themselves quite as much as Mr Linder in terms of academic, political and educational change to the world we know. It is indisputable – the man was right far more often than he was wrong. And although not everyone liked him, everyone misses him.
As I work to lead SSE into its second century, I frequently feel the weight of the past pressing.
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