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Globally responsible leadership: an interview with Anders Aspling

Interview by: Alistair Craven

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Image: Anders AsplingAnders Aspling is the son of Sven Aspling, a former famous Swedish political leader who played the role of ombudsman in the transfer of Nordic refugees during World War II. His father was also minister of welfare, social security, health and labour during the period when the Swedish welfare state was built.

While holding the position of president and dean of IFL – the Swedish Institute of Management – Anders Aspling helped it almost doubled its revenues, become the leading Northern European Executive/Management Development Institute, and receive accreditation by the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) as one of the first 19 pioneering schools.

As a member of the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) Board (serving two consecutive maximum terms from 1996 to 2008), he has worked on a variety of assignments spanning more than ten years. This engagement is still growing and the assignments are expanding.

Anders has been driving and chairing the EFMD/United Nations Global Compact initiative on developing a next generation of globally responsible leaders since its start in 2004 as Executive Head and Secretary-General. He was Dean and professor at Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School 2007/2008 and is Consulting Professor at Tongji University, Shanghai, China.


AC: Can you tell us about your day-to-day role at the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI)?

Anders Aspling:

It is on the one hand keeping the coordination from our management centre going, and increasing the efficiency with which we can connect and work together throughout the global community that we are, and on the other hand to spend time focusing on our external relations, communication, advocacy and strategic partnerships and development.

From January 1 this year we have a new Chief Executive in place. Mark Drewell is an experienced business executive and has been engaged in sustainability work throughout his career. He has spent the last 15 years as an executive in South Africa, and he played an important part in the process of transition in the early 1990s. With Mark joining us, a new and next phase of development for the centre and for the whole partnership and the GRLI as such will take off. I’m very much looking forward to Mark taking charge and to start working with him. I will remain Secretary-General, and will in that role on a part time basis support Mark on strategic issues and attend to specific issues where my experience is of value.

AC: You have significant academic and corporate leadership experience. How difficult, or otherwise, did you find making the leadership transition between these two different spheres?

Anders Aspling:

There are similarities and there are differences, the most challenging difference being that in both cases you basically work with independent minded people, but in the academic context those people are assumed to also act independently and very much with their own drive and objectives guiding them. In that sense, the business world is easier as you ultimately have a common and measurable purpose or objective to obtain. This is not as clear for an academic institution as a whole.

My philosophy has always been to try and create as much and as rewarding teamwork as possible. The challenges for doing this by developing common objectives are much greater in the academic context. In most businesses there is also some kind of command culture to fall back upon if needed for the sake of efficiency and effectiveness.

My conclusion would be that it is easier to make the transition from academia to business than the other way around, and if you have a leadership philosophy based on teamwork and the value of everyone’s contribution you may find it easier to move between corporate and academic roles.

I see myself as a team-player – with strong personal convictions and standards – and with a true belief that individuals can make a difference, whilst also being most satisfied when collective efforts pay off. I find it most rewarding when individuals are allowed to come forward and contribute with their unique skills, competencies, personality, energy and personal commitment to the fulfilment of a shared purpose.

AC: Can you tell us about your time as Senior Vice President of Swedish construction firm Siab?

Anders Aspling:

It was an exciting time, with extreme economic growth for the first years, and thereafter a remarkable downturn. In three years we went from 5.000 employees to 12.000 and then down to 9.000 in a year and a half – through organic development and M&As. The lessons learned and the experience gained has been of great value for everything that I’ve engaged in since. You learn to act and execute in cases where it’s crucial to do so. You learn to balance paradoxes and to handle multi-stakeholder interests – with a sincere respect for all parties involved and concerned. You realize how important thorough and practical knowledge of the context and the situation is, and you learn how important timing is.

AC: Can you tell us about your role as President of the Swedish Institute of Management?

Anders Aspling:

This was in the 1990s. It was really the take-off of globalization as we’ve now come to know it. We developed from the leading Swedish provider of executive development to a leading Northern European Executive/Management Development Institute. We received accreditation by the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) as one of the first 19 pioneering schools. Our business grew outside of Sweden and Scandinavia – in Europe though our campus in Brussels and in Russia and other parts of the world. We developed even further regarding our closeness to the challenges and needs of the business community and our value added for the practice of business and development of an appropriate leadership. Our multi-disciplinary and result-oriented approach deepened and we advanced further regarding learning methodology and a holistic approach to management and leadership; with personal growth as key basis for any appropriate use of knowledge, concepts theory and so called “management tools”.

AC: You have done a lot of work in the area of developing globally responsible leaders. How would you define a globally responsible leader?

Anders Aspling:

A person with vision, courage and solidly grounded in herself/himself.

The following is a quote from the first publication by the GRLI in 2005.

“A core aspect is the degree to which the individual has developed his or her own level of consciousness and awareness of both the external global context and the inner dimensions of themselves. This is the starting point which defines the extent to which they are able to determine, with others, right action in a global setting.”

”Globally Responsible Leadership: a Call for Engagement”, EFMD/GRLI, October 2005

Added to this should be an experience of different cultures and a true understanding of the enormous wealth this diversity consists of and how rewarding it is to experience it. A deep concern for the future of our planet and a never ending dedication to act in the service of the common good are fundamentals.

Two more quotes to reflect upon.

“The firm will only become responsible if it subscribes to an all-embracing view of societal progress and sustainable development.”

Philppe de Woot, GRLI Partner Magazine, Summer 2009

“Globally Responsible Leadership demands that this cultural change and evolution of mindsets should be based on re-visiting three areas: First, the raison d’etre of the firm; second, leadership as embedding and catalysing values and responsibilities in the organisation; and third, corporate statesmanship as broadening the debate and dialogue with society at large.”

“The Globally Responsible Leader – a Call for Action”, GRLI, November 2008

AC: What do you think the idea of responsibility means in a corporate and global context?

Anders Aspling:

I touched upon it in responding to the previous question, and would just like to add that I also believe it builds on the insight that long term prosperity and business progress success always are based on and have to take on a holistic and multi-stakeholder approach. If you serve with all your possibilities and responsibilities in view you sustain, if not, you simply don’t. This is proven all through the history of mankind. It relates to corporations and all organized communities of people.

The core of business should, again, become the creation of economic, technological and social progress – based on entrepreneurship and innovation.

AC: Leading on from this, what are the key challenges involved in developing globally responsible leaders?

Anders Aspling:

There are at least three domains of competencies to be addressed:

  1. The knowledge and intellectual/analytical capacity, and the ability to act based upon the knowledge, insights and experience gained.
  2. The sensitivity for rationality as a holistic concept taking into account emotions, feelings, beliefs, passion and dreams!
  3. The ability to relate to the rich diversity of the world, and to do so in a focused curious, positive and constructive and action-oriented way.

The training of people embracing these dimensions is way from what traditional business and management education have been and in most cases are aimed at. So, we are living in very exciting times; where experimentation, creativity and innovation – i.e. change – is key and need to be applied on all aspects of the business school – its role, its curricula, its research, its faculty composition, its learning methodology, its disciplinary integration and outreach, and its identity.

AC: A 2002 article entitled “Global leader development: an emerging research agenda” mentioned a survey in which 85 percent of Fortune 500 organizations felt that they did not have enough global leaders amongst their ranks. Why do you think this is so? From your experience, do you think the situation has improved at all?

Anders Aspling:

It must have improved by the bare fact that we’ve since then – all of us – have experienced a remarkable development of the world. It’s taken me from the 50s, 60s and 70s terror balance to a period of total US domination and control to a global development which is explicitly driven by multiple regional development forces. It’s complex, it’s new, it’s exciting, and it’s not predictable.

We live with a multi-block driven global development – economically, socially, ecologically and technologically. This fact asks for a fundamentally holistic and responsible approach in everything we do.

The ultimate impact of the current global development on all of us as human beings is so apparent, but not recognized close to what is needed for wise and appropriate measures and action.

AC: The GRLI has been involved in creating the Journal of Global Responsibility. What can you tell us about the significance of this project?

Anders Aspling:

We need new multidisciplinary ways of approaching the interdependence and sustainability of the world. We also need new approaches and perspectives on the development of knowledge and research regarding business development, management and leadership. This project is aimed at giving room for publishing research, thought-leadership, conceptual development, best practices, and practical tales on issues crossing disciplinary boundaries, and with a full focus on exercising responsibility for the development of planet earth and for all of us – as individuals, corporations, public organizations, NGOs, governmental institutions and human organization for any kind of purpose.

AC: You have experience in developing and running executive education programmes. What are some of the key ingredients of a quality exec-ed programme?

Anders Aspling:

To go beyond skill training and conceptual development to make the person develop as a whole – head, heart and hand. It addresses global insights, values, personal growth and virtues, and visions of the future of the world as an interconnected and interdependent whole.

AC: To quote a recent article from Emerald’s Journal of Business Strategy entitled “Let’s talk: getting business and academia to collaborate”, “business schools and, in particular, MBA courses tend to reduce strategic management to a toolkit of analytical techniques that often fail to achieve relevance for the organization. The gap between theory and practice has become wider than ever.” How would you comment on this?

Anders Aspling:

I agree. There’s a simple explanation. While reality has changed dramatically, academia has been following its old “technically scientific” paradigm of rigour and relevance. As I’ve pointed out before, we need much more of an open attitude and approach to knowledge creation, and we need much more of educated multidisciplinary approaches to be able to learn from and to support the advancement of an appropriated business practice.

AC: On a lighter note, in your youth you played on both the national football and ice hockey teams. What do you remember about this time?

Anders Aspling:

I remember the creation of a team, and the wonderful experience when all pieces are in place and you know exactly with what and how to contribute to the achievement of the common objective. It really is like being in a flow which allows you to deliver at your very best for the best of all. I also remember the comfort of having the purpose so simple and easily presented, and the satisfaction of immediate and explicit feedback on your efforts to contribute to that purpose.

AC: Finally, are there any closing comments you wish to make?

Anders Aspling:

I’d like to add that the notion that mankind’s challenge for the 21st century to achieve environmental sustainability and social justice is the agenda for business, and it means we will gradually see a re-shaping of the entire business landscape. This demands leaders capable of acting as statesmen in changing the system in which they work, not just optimizing within the status quo. As environmental writer Paul Hawken said "What a great time to be born, what a great time to be alive because this generation gets to essentially completely change the world.”

February 2010.