Book review — Return of the Vikings — On how ancient Nordic virtues can help us navigate the fog

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“Culturally, politically, philosophically, The Nordic countries have been at the forefront of much that is new and interesting in the Western world. A trendsetter in design, gastronomy, literature, and visual art, Nordic countries also draw attention today for their business practices and involvement in key international organizations. At an individual and corporate level, The Nordics are gaining recognition for their distinct approach to leadership.

As explorers, navigators, political and educational innovators, The Nordic peoples have a rich heritage. This provides deep roots, traced back to the Viking era and the nine noble virtues of Nordic mythology. It still informs the way The Nordic peoples live and work today. The global nature of business and communication in the twenty-first century means that their influence extends well beyond northern Europe. Their methods, values, and leadership practices are woven into the DNA of international businesses founded in The Nordics, and exemplified by many Nordic practitioners who have chosen to work in other countries or for non-Scandinavian organizations.” — Return of the Vikings, Foreword, page 7–8

Courage, Truth, Honor, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Self-reliance, Industriousness and Perseverance. These are the ‘Nine Noble Virtues,’ which can be traced back to the Viking era and ancient Nordic literary sources such as The Poetic Edda.

In their recently published book, Return of the Vikings: Nordic Leadership in Times of Extreme Change (Danish Psychological Publishers, April 2018), the authors, Chris Shern and Henrik Jeberg with Richard Martin, who happens to be the co-author of The Neo-Generalist, explore how these virtues continue to form a set of moral and ethical standards for people to live and work by.

Although none of them is strictly limited to Nordic culture — there clearly is some universality as to what these virtues are and what they stand for — they have, of course, been influenced by local history as well as the harsh Nordic environments, creating a truly unique cultural ‘framework.’

This doesn’t mean, however, that people who live elsewhere can’t learn from or implement these virtues. On the contrary, they can provide guidance to all of us, especially in times of complexity and uncertainty. This is how Return of the Vikings should be read, as an inspiring book about nine guiding principles that help to make sense of today’s world, regardless of where you are.

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Courage, Truth, Honor, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Self-reliance, Industriousness and Perseverance — The ‘Nine Noble Virtues.’ (Graphics by Lea Rathnov/Hofdamerne)

Each of these nine virtues is illustrated by a Stanza from The Poetic Edda and examples and narratives from different practices of which I found the stories about Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an Icelandic ‘poetician’ and former parliamentarian for the Pirate Party, and Claus Meyer, a Danish gastronomic entrepreneur and one of the driving forces behind the New Nordic Cuisine movement, the most inspiring and compelling.

“In Claus’s view, when you see people with your heart, it opens doors. By way of example, he recounts two frustrating meetings with an ambitious young chef who was seeking backing for a new venture. If Claus had relied solely on his eyes and ears, he might have concluded that he was dealing with a self-important, self-obsessed individual who spoke only about himself. Yet there was something else that Claus was able to latch on to, some invisible connection and understanding. He set aside what his other senses were telling him and went with his heart. Within three months of launching his new restaurant, that same young chef had earned recognition from the Michelin Guide, going from strength to strength in the subsequent period. Claus discovered that he could serve as an enabler but that, in a situation like this, the best form of leadership was to get out of the way. It is the aspiration of any transformational leader: to make yourself redundant.” — Return of the Vikings, Chapter 8: Hospitality, page 145–146

Return of the Vikings is also interlaced with fragments from Nordic movies and references to design, architecture and literature, constantly showing us how these ancient virtues continue to live on in everyday life — in ‘things’ as well as people, including many prominent business leaders.

Return of the Vikings is a highly recommended book, not only for people who would like to understand Nordic culture and heritage but especially also for those who are looking for an inclusive, trusting and collaborative style of leadership to negotiate through our current times of extreme change. Don’t expect something clearcut as ‘How to become a Nordic-like leader in 9 steps,’ though. This book is for reading, pondering and contemplation. If that doesn’t suit you, you’ll probably have a long way to go anyway…

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“May he benefit, he who learnt it, luck to those who listened!” — The Poetic Edda, Sayings of the High One, Stanza 164

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