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Jan Carlzon

For Jan Carlzon, leading comes as naturally as does loving. This innate ability seems to be the very essence of his being. His warmth and wisdom are at the heart of his philosophy. Part visionary, part strategist, Jan’s words and ideas are as engaging as they are uplifting. If effective leadership is the key to the success of any organization, then perhaps we all need Jan Carlzon to lead ours.

“As a child, I felt so loved and knew it mattered I was alive. After struggling a long time to conceive, my parents finally gave birth to twins. Sadly, those babies lived only one week, and died one after the other. My parents struggled again for two more years and were thrilled to give birth to a healthy baby boy.

But tragedy struck again, two-and-a-half years later, when he wandered off on his own and drowned in a small pond in their garden. A year after that, I was born.”

Jan never spoke to his parents about their losses; he just always knew he was their first child who survived. He is forever grateful to them for how cherished he felt.

“I admire my parents’ courage and strength; the faith they had in me made all the difference. Despite having already lost three very young children, they were never controlling or over-protective. Instead, they gave me the freedom to learn and grow.”

Trust, openness, and love was the foundation upon which the family was built.

“This is a very special way to grow up. Can you imagine how a child can thrive if they know they are treasured? My parents truly believed in me, and I am so thankful they gave me full responsibility over my life. The only advice I would ever give to parents is not to limit your child’s freedom or be afraid to let them go. All I have experienced and achieved in my life is because my parents set me free.”

Nyköping is located 100 kilometers south of Stockholm. Jan says one of the beautiful things of growing up in a small town is that he never felt stressed by the lack of choices.

“I did what I could do and took part in what was available. I also stood up for what I believed in, such as being part of an action group against the atomic bomb. After graduating from high school in 1961, I went to the Stockholm School of Economics and was immediately told I would make a good addition to the SSE Student Association. I became part of the social committee that arranged the parties.”

Jan was soon voted president of the Student Association. He smiles as he clarifies the length it took for him to complete his degree.

“The study time at SSE was three years... I was there for five. Those last two were just for fun. I really enjoyed myself; in fact, I’m not sure which was more important: my studies or the network I built. Both have been instrumental in my career.”

Jan became SSE’s resident jokester and will never forget his most famous prank. It was March 31st, and there was a strike at Systembolaget, Sweden’s government-controlled liquor conglomerate. There was not a drop of wine, beer, or spirits sold anywhere in the country.

“Meanwhile, customs police had just arrested a warship for trying to smuggle tons of illegal alcohol into Sweden. So, my friends and I put up signs around the city saying that all of it would be sold at one liquor store on Kungstensgatan the morning of April 1st. Scores of people lined up for blocks the night before in anticipation of the big sale. Radio Sweden even conducted interviews the next morning, asking if anyone knew what date it was. There was a collective groan when everyone realized it was April 1st.”

Ever the gifted storyteller, Jan has troves of entertaining stories.

“I went to lots of parties and became quite well known around the school. To my great luck, another student at SSE was also called Jan Carlson, and he was absolutely brilliant. Academic results were publicly posted, and people were shocked time after time: ‘How the hell could you be the best student at the school,’ they would say, ‘when you’re out partying all the time?!?’ I still have not disputed their beliefs.”

Jan smiles as he thinks of the strong network he made and the reputation the “other” Jan Carlson helped him to build.

“I was asked to be valedictorian. The guest of honor was the Minister of Education, Olof Palme. He wanted SSE to be involved in the world university system, and I did not. I guess he didn’t like my speech because he said: ‘I have one piece of advice for Mr. Carlzon: Think before you speak.’ I am very happy I did not follow his advice because I’ve always tried to speak out for what I believe is right.”

Following graduation, Jan started his career at Vingresor: Scandinavia’s biggest tour operator.

“Over 11 years, I worked as production manager, product manager, marketing manager, and CEO. I was then offered the position of President of Sweden’s domestic airline, Linjeflyg, but turned it down – twice. I ultimately accepted the offer, as developing a new strategy was the perfect way to hone my skills as an executive.”

At 36 years old, Jan became the youngest airline president in the world.

“I certainly had some unconventional ways of leading, which included four initiatives to convert the production-oriented company into a customer-driven enterprise. The first was to be smarter about using our fixed resources. I also positioned Linjeflyg as the ‘world’s best airline’, which was very audacious for a Swede. The third was to share responsibility across more departments. Lastly, I brought love into Linjeflyg by structuring it in the shape of a heart: half representing generated revenue; the other half symbolizing incurred expenses. “Love is in the Air” became the company’s new theme song.”

Employees were excited about the roles they would be playing in creating this new organization.

“The staff became so empowered! They suddenly looked forward to working and being involved in the company’s main goal. When customers saw how happy and engaged employees were, they too became happier. The number and demographic of passengers skyrocketed, which increased the bottom line. Sharing responsibility and encouraging creative energy became Linjeflyg’s secret weapons.”

After two years leading Linjeflyg, Jan accepted the position of CEO of the Scandinavian Airlines Group (SAS). The year was 1980. SAS was losing money for its second straight year and was spiraling towards an alarming 20-million-dollar loss. Jan knew another groundbreaking turnaround was vital.

“We turned the traditional corporate pyramid on its head. Top management began allocating responsibility downward, giving autonomy to employees on all levels. Anyone who is not given information cannot assume responsibility, but anyone who is given information cannot avoid assuming it.”

Jan’s methods energized the organization with all 20,000 employees striving towards the same goal. The results were astounding. SAS became the most punctual airline in Europe, and its 80-million-dollar increase in profits in a single year transformed the troubled company into one of the world’s best airlines. Although the media was quick to attribute the success to Jan, he humbly says it was the work of the team.

“I applied new and unusual kinds of business strategies, and the staff welcomed them: At Vingresor, we developed family-related services complete with mini-clubs for the kids; At Linjeflyg, we cornered the business travelers’ market and found a new segment by offering a youth standby price. When I started at SAS, I said: ‘We used to fly airplanes. Now we must learn how to fly people.’”

In one year, Jan and his team turned the entire company upside down. The risk was substantial; the success was remarkable.

“My approach has always been quite innovative, and the Stockholm School of Economics was my start. The school openly encouraged creative and progressive ways of thinking. A professor in economic psychology became my mentor during my master’s degree. What a privilege it was to study with him! I honored his memory in a film where I express my ideas about leadership and the importance of distributing love in an organization so people can dare to be creative, to make decisions, and to take responsibility.”

Jan generously shares his experience with students.

“I discuss the two forces that control every step in our lives: fear and love. I say we managed to implement this leadership philosophy in all countries, except for the United States. When I led SAS, many people in America did not accept a loving environment to work in because everyone was so consumed by the fear of making a mistake.”

How then does Jan explain what makes a good leader?

“I’m an absolute believer in management by love. The leader’s responsibility is to outline the framework of what employees, as a team, should obtain. The leader must be a source of inspiration and be responsible for the entire organization. The leader must stand up for what he or she decides is the path that will best benefit the team: ‘This is where we are; this is the goal we want to achieve. And this is the road we are taking to reach that goal. You are free to take all the responsibility you need to help us achieve that objective - together. A true leader is one who designs the cathedral and then shares the vision that inspires others to build it.”

Trust is essential with Jan, reflecting his childhood and his deep respect for his parents. Running a company, he believes, is like being part of a family. Employees must be trusted to take responsibility for their own decisions.

“I gave a speech once in Amsterdam and talked about fear on the one side and trust and respect on the other. A woman in the audience from Harvard stood up and said: ‘Why are you saying trust and respect? Just say love because that’s what you’re talking about.’ And she was right. Ever since, I refer to that trust and respect, as love.”

Paradoxically, Jan didn’t dare to use this term when he first came up with the concept in the 1980’s.

“I was addressing industrial leaders worldwide and was not sure how this philosophy would be received. I really believed it though. Now, more than 40 years later, I still think love is the best way to motivate employees and increase a company’s bottom line.”

Jan admits that, even today, some may be skeptical to this management style and say giving people responsibility is soft leadership.

“I say this is tough leadership because you must trust others when you give them responsibility. In the end, it is you who are ultimately responsible for the results of the entire company.’”

Jan’s innovative approach took off and in 1985, one of Sweden’s biggest publishing houses, Bonnier, asked him to write a book.

“At first, I refused, but then I thought of those that had still not fully grasped the notion of customer-driven thinking. By writing a book, perhaps it could become my greatest source of education and inspiration.”

And that it did. Moments of Truth has been hailed as the single most important piece of management literature in the service industry.

“Two years after releasing it in Swedish, it was translated into English and distributed internationally; it is still being used as course literature in universities in North, South, and Latin America, Europe, China, Japan, and Vietnam. In 1985, I was breaking new rules. Today this thinking is a necessity since no company can sustain long term if they don’t understand the market.”

Jan underlines the need for values-based leadership, explaining how the very values he learned from his parents – integrity, trust, and respect for others – can transform a company. He remembers giving a presentation in Los Angeles to a group of academics and business leaders.

“I spoke openly about giving freedom and responsibility to people in an atmosphere of love. One of the managers stood up and declared: ‘This is absolute nonsense. You will learn sooner or later that people will start to fail and they will blame you.’ Of course, there were people – especially in the United States – who didn’t believe in this philosophy, but I’ve always maintained that if you bring ideas forward, you either believe in them yourself or you don’t. If you do believe, then you will probably be successful in getting others to understand them. If you don’t believe, then you should probably keep quiet because you have nothing to give.”

As Oscar Wilde says: Never forget that your best thoughts always come from others.

“You must first learn how to listen. And that’s not just listening to what the employees say; it’s also helping them express the things they don’t dare to say. You must first listen to your people in the organization and then to the people in the market. Then you must say: ‘Enough. I have now listened. And as the leader, I now decide: This is the goal. This is the way. For those of you who do not think it is the right strategic path, you can either follow us together or you can leave, because we cannot have people walking in the other direction when the rest of us are moving forward together.’”

Jan reached his goals for SAS. He touches upon the unfortunate fate of success to which far too many fall victim: reaching the goal then having nothing more to strive for.

“If you are very successful in an area where you perform, like an artist, an athlete or even a corporate leader, you get to the point where you have to make a decision. When my good friend Arnie Ness climbed Mount Everest and reached the summit, he said: ‘I had a dream, I reached my dream, I lost my dream, and God knows I miss it.’ By 1987, we had reached all our dreams in SAS and in my role as a successful leader. I think I reached the vision. Then I lost the vision. And I really missed it.”

Jan was at a crossroad in his life, and something had to change. By the end of the year, he had a very amiable departure from Scandinavian Airlines and from his 21-year marriage.

“Sometimes many people turn to drugs or alcohol after having achieved something they’ve always wanted and no longer know what to do. Sadly, the ultimate reaction in many cases is even suicide. We need to help those people understand if they ever find themselves in a similar situation and not push them with too many high demands but instead, help them find the way.”

When Jan looks back on his extraordinarily successful career, he credits those in his family for their love.

“I got married in my last year at SSE when I was 25 years old. At that time, that’s what you did. We gave birth to three children: Jesper and the twins, Maria and Malin. We lived together until 1987. A year later, I found a new love, and we have been married for more than 30 years. Susanne and I gave birth to two children: our daughter, Hanna and our son, Fred. Both women and all five children have played significant roles in my success. They still remind me why love is so important in life and in work.”

Jan cherishes a memory from when one of his son’s was 16 years old.

“Fred was studying English in the United States for the summer and sent me birthday wishes since he could not return home. I have never forgotten them: Father, he wrote. You are not the rudder that is controlling or steering me. You are the wind in my sails that brings me forward. To me, that’s the most beautiful description of leading with love that I have ever heard.”

In 2014, Jan was diagnosed with Parkinsons, but he has not let the illness overtake his life.

“I now devote 50 percent of my time to myself: my body and my soul. And, as I am part-owner of six different companies, I spend the other 50 percent giving presentations on leadership and business. I have been chairman of the Swedish Tennis Federation and of the British/Swedish Chamber of Commerce. I’m also on the board of the International Tennis Federation and many other companies.”

Jan says being active mentally as well as physically is his greatest medicine.

“I must do something every day, and I think today I am doing quite well. For me, tennis is excellent, and I think I still play very well. I also love golf and skiing, but I don’t downhill ski anymore. I guess I could, but I’m a bit afraid. I go to the gym with my personal trainer and I also train with a physiotherapist. I do my best to keep up.”

Jan truly believes that moving his body helps strengthen his mind.

“I feel so much stronger after exercising, and I can even stand taller. The advice people give me, I really take into my heart... But one of the problems when you have an illness is that when people find out, they want to say: ‘Here’s what you can do to help yourself; it should only take five minutes!’ But sometimes, it takes me much more than just five minutes.”

Jan still returns to the Stockholm School of Economics as he has for the past 60 years, leading workshops and giving presentations.

“It’s so fascinating to meet people that share the same thoughts and philosophies: How you shine! It’s such a lovely connection that can happen between human beings. I really like meeting people and learning from them. I like the way SSE has developed over the years: by putting up paintings on the walls, by initiating literary circles. I think it is a fantastic way of creating another atmosphere of feelings here at the school. Like the SAS head office that we built, now SSE also feels like a building of love.”

When Queen Silvia of Sweden turned 70, she started a foundation called Care About the Children. Jan’s wife, Susanne, held the position of Executive Director, responsible for helping to improve the lives of children worldwide who are living in war zones. Jan and Susanne were in Colombia with Care about the Children in 2019. This was a very special time for Jan.

“This was my first time back in Colombia since 1995, when I travelled the country giving presentations. My assistant then was a young 25-year-old called Gabriel. How wonderful it was to meet him again, almost 25 years later.”

Jan beams as he explains that Gabriel became Colombia’s Minister of Environment as well as a published author.

“Gabriel has now written four books and gives presentations about leadership and service. I am so touched when he says I’ve changed his life.”

South America will always hold a special place in Jan’s heart, particularly Colombia where professionals and students alike quote Jan’s book Moments of Truth as though it is some kind of bible.

“In 1998, I sat next to a woman on the flight from London to Bogotá. We talked about so many fantastic things. Then Susanne and I were invited to her home the last time we were in Colombia and over dinner, she explained that she had been very depressed when she boarded that flight in ‘98. She said my words somehow managed to give her a new life energy. Her husband kept thanking me now for what I said then because he’s not sure she would be here today if it were not for that conversation. When life starts to take on another momentum, it is so important to know that you’ve touched the hearts of another.”

Jan gently clasps his hands together, lost deep in thought. Could he ever know the masses of hearts he has touched and the lives he has changed?

“For me, it’s such an honor to connect with someone because I’m not exactly young anymore... And, in some way, it is easy to feel as though your life is turning downwards instead of flying up. I think it’s important when you get older to feel as though you are falling upwards. I must say that after those two meetings in Colombia, I started to feel quite proud: for the friends and the family I have and the mark I think I’ve somehow made. I have given something, and what I leave behind is up to me. People have always asked me: ‘What is success?’ I’ve always been quite humbled because I guess they think I might be some kind of expert in defining the word. For me, I think success has had different definitions at different times in my life. Today, success for me is knowing I have made footprints in the sand; and even if they will be spoiled somewhere in the future, they were there to begin with and are strong enough to survive, guide, and lead others for more years to come.”

Jan’s words will always be remembered. He has taught so many of us much more than just lessons in organizational management. His legacy is love and leadership. Having the courage to believe in yourself and in others is the path he has created in the sand. His footprints will be visible forever.

Jan’s philosophy is timeless. Universities all over the world still teach business case Jan Carlzon: CEO at SAS; in fact, it is one of the most studied cases in the history of Harvard Business School.

“Seeing how students react is fascinating for me. Whether they are in Asia, Latin America, Europe, Russia, or the States, they have seen that love is not always a part of organizational management. So many companies are still run and managed by fear. People are not willing to take risks when they feel afraid or threatened. I tell them not to fear adversity. Remember: a kite rises against the wind rather than with it.”

Jan’s presentations are both insightful and educational, and many who attend are actually moved to tears.

“Tears are important. They mean my words have affected someone deeply. And if I can touch one person, then that is all that matters. This approach seemed so new thirty years ago. To these young people, it still is.”

A hush comes over the crowd as he enters the room. More than 60 years have passed since he was a student here, walking down these halls, sitting in these chairs, pushing open that oak door. Jan Carlzon is back. And it’s not only students who are here to listen. The room is filled with fellow alumni, former employees, high-level leaders, and even those who have never worked in business. Jan’s message on leading with love knows no culture or time, no gender or age. The auditorium is packed with everyone from seasoned silver-haired professionals to fresh-faced first year students. At 80 years old, Jan Carlzon still has the charm, the charisma, the wisdom, and the weight. From philosophy in business to hardcore finance, Jan Carlzon presents his thoughts on leadership, and the crowd hangs onto his every word. He is dignified, sincere, worldly, and wise. Finally, he invites the last question. An ambitious young student stands in the front row, bright-eyed, arms at his side and fingers spread wide: “Why do you think you’re so successful?”

The crowd is silent. Is it his stamina? His smarts? His intuition or his ambition? What has been the secret to Jan Carlzon’s larger-than-life success? The audience is frozen in anticipation.

Jan’s response is as sincere as it is sudden. Five words.“Because my parents loved me.”

There is not a dry eye in the room.


Text: Karyn McGettigan