What makes a country a success?

01 Aug
August 1, 2013

We often talk about what makes a successful leader or a successful business, but what about a country – what makes an entire country a success?  And if we knew what made a whole country a success, could we learn from this in our own businesses?


An article in The Economist caught my eye.  When ranked against a range of county-wide success factors such as global competitiveness, ease of doing business, global innovation, corruption perceptions, human development and prosperity.

Nordic Success

When each of the above were taken into account and ranked the top four countries globally were:

  1. Sweden
  2. Denmark
  3. Finland
  4. Norway

This is an outstanding achievement and got me wondering about what these Nordic countries were doing that was making them so successful and what we could learn and apply in our own businesses.  Surely it had to be something more than their location and beautiful scenery!

It hasn’t always been easy for the Nordic countries.  From 1870-1970 they were among the world’s fastest growing countries but then during the 1990s it all started to go wrong.

The Nordic countries had become very wealthy and had over-invested in their welfare state and this, coupled with becoming ‘over governed’ and their reliance on a few large businesses, started to have a negative effect on the region.

But they fought back from that position to a place of global strength.  Without going into all the details it’s useful to understand the key characteristics of this region which made this remarkable recovery possible.  There are three key characteristics.

Firstly there’s an honesty and transparency in government.  All records are freely available and there’s uproar should a minister get off their bike and into the back of a limousine!

They are also pragmatic and tough-minded.  When facing the potential of future ruin, the Swedes voted in a government whose whole modus-operandi was austerity, toughness and recovery – and they did it.  The Swedes knew that there would be tough times ahead but without making tough changes they knew that the future would be bleak for all of them.

Business context

If certain characteristics can potentially lead to the success of a country – indeed a whole region – then surely there must be some learning for all of us in business?  Let’s remind ourselves of the success characteristics:

  • Honesty and transparency
  • Pragmatism
  • Tough-mindedness

In the UK we’re currently living in the shadow of a triple-dip recession thanks in no small part to the banking sector, where hardly a week goes by without yet another problem surfacing which, at the root, seems to have been totally driven by greed and secrecy.

Can you imagine how much better our banking industry would be if it also held honesty and transparency at the top of its agenda!

Pragmatism is a wonderful gift – not everyone has it, and certainly not every business, but the ability to see the longer-term goals and to approach business with a pragmatic mind-set can only be a good thing.

And tough-mindedness – this can only be a benefit in any circumstance.  Life is never easy and business life can be tougher still.  Being tough-minded doesn’t have to mean that you’re ruthless – it just means that you can stand by your decisions and see them through.


The Nordic countries are certainly on a roll.  They’re not perfect by any means but they are certainly performing well and there are – as we have seen in this post – a number of lessons we can learn from their success.

Call to action

Try adopting the Nordic success characteristics and see what a difference it makes for you.

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