A senior U.S. diplomat once told me, “If only there were more of you, you Danes would rule the world.” I interpreted the remark as a compliment to the active Danish engagement in global affairs as well as the well-organized way that Danes tend to run things. But the statement also pointed to Denmark’s Achilles’ heel: The risk of low ambitions and parochialism due the country’s modest size.
Low ambitions have a long history in Denmark. In the words of N.F.S. Grundtvig (1820): “Vi er ikke skabte til højhed og blæst; ved jorden at blive, det tjener os bedst.” Or take the words of another intellectual giant, H.V. Kaalund (1872): “På det jævne, på det jævne, ikke i det himmelblå; der har livet sat dig stævne, der skal du din prøve stå.” And we all know Axel Sandemose’s formulation of Janteloven (1933).
Thankfully, Denmark now seems to be moving past the parochialism of the past. It is now natural for young Danes to study internationally and spend significant parts of their careers outside of Denmark. Copenhagen is rapidly becoming a truly international metropolis and was recently named the world’s most livable city.
Most importantly, it is becoming clearer and clearer that Danes have a crucial global role to play. Since the end of the Cold War, Denmark has been heavily engaged in international military operations, global business ventures and European integration. The emerging impression from the past 25 years is one of a Danish style of leadership that works extremely well internationally – whether in diplomacy, business or military operations. The low power distance in Danish organizations and the Danish ability to understand and adjust to different cultural environments are powerful attributes in the 21st century environment of globalization and challenges to traditional hierarchies.
Danish Americans are well positioned to encourage continued Danish internationalism and help nurture the special Danish brand of leadership. The United States has always been a place for ambitious dreamers, and one might very well argue that Danish leadership has flourished in the United States much longer than it has in Denmark. While Grundtvig and Kaalund were keeping Denmark modest, Danish immigrants and their descendants were doing big things in the United States.
The recent emergence of a more ambitious Denmark has created an important opportunity for Danes and Danish Americans to come together and further define what Danish leadership is and why it seems to be so effective in the age of globalization. In the 1980s, when the Japanese economy was booming, it became fashionable to study Japanese management principles, and Japanese words such as kaizen became common in business literature. Perhaps the time has come to study Danish leadership with a similar level of intensity and for Danish words to proliferate in business schools and service academies across the globe.