Reflections on the enduring appeal of Switzerland, IMD’s home, and how Swiss qualities enrich and empower business education.

IMD nests in a small town at the foot of the Alps. Most everyone is familiar with those imposing mountains, but the lands they enclose and protect can be misunderstood. What is Switzerland? Why is it special? Why is it a uniquely appropriate and appealing location for a business school?

It is remarkable, in the first place, that Switzerland exists at all. Where other nations crushed regional identities in the name of unity, the Swiss revel in heterogeneity. Every region has its dialects and its traditions, and together such regions held together a confederation with diverse linguistic, religious, ethnic, and cultural traditions for 700 years. Doing so was not easy; it was through iron and blood that Switzerland resisted absorption by the larger neighboring German and French nations. Despite its contemporary “neutral” reputation, Switzerland was once famed for the talent and ferocity of its fighting men. Indeed, the “disease” of homesickness – or Heimweh – was originally “discovered” among Swiss mercenaries fighting abroad, a testament both to the power of the Swiss idea and of its people.

Long before Switzerland exported MBAs or chocolate, it produced Reisläufer – mercenaries – who secured its independence.

Yet by the mid-1700s, Geneva-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau was complaining that “formerly an impoverished Switzerland laid down the law to France; now a rich Switzerland trembles at the frown of a French minister.” A small nation, however brave, cannot match the production capacity of a large one, and so cannot dominate any post-industrial battlefield. 

The Swiss thus turned to the arts of seduction: for much of the 18th and 19th centuries, the nation self-consciously developed into a center of European tourism, spurred by bestselling novels like Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse. When foreigners imagine Switzerland as the land of clean air, nice weather, beautiful mountains and lakes, fondue, chocolate, Heidi, and raclette, it is this newer, meeker, and more submissive Switzerland that they have in mind. As Rousseau wrote in his letters to the Marshal of Luxembourg extolling the Swiss peasant life: “…there are bell towers in forests, flocks on outcrops, factories in abysses, and workshops sitting beside a torrent.”

The popularized vision of Switzerland: Rousseau’s love stories, Wagner on holiday, and Heidi.

The synthesis of these traditions of parochial, martial identity and quaint, Alpine hospitality blended to produce a nation state in rebellion against the gigantism and globalism of the early twenty-first century. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written in Antifragile, and as IMD participants have learned in our studies of resilience with Professor Patrick Reinmoeller, the freedom to iterate and experiment in a decentralized structure permits both strength and flexibility in responses to events. Genuine bottom-up, grass-roots governance is rare, yet also robust, and it is perhaps in part a consequence of Swiss social organization that the country has become a European hub not only of innovation, high technology, and financial services, but equally science, psychology, health, and philosophy. Can it be a coincidence that thinkers as diverse as Jung, Nabokov, Einstein, and Lenin all studied, worked, and flourished in Switzerland?

Thus, while it is well understood that Switzerland is wealthy, safe, disciplined, clean, organized, honest, and family friendly, IMD participants have come to understand the ways in which the threads of Swiss history and identity mingle to produce a unique model for nations and businesses alike. Despite the reputation of the “Davos man” as a rootless cosmopolitan, the historically Swiss Davos is, however hospitable, also anti-globalist and anti-internationalist, focused on what is particular, small, beautiful, intransigent, and robust.

The Enzian still blooms blue, in the Alpine glow…

Thomas Mann memorialized Switzerland in his novel The Magic Mountain as both a melting pot and a center of recuperation, and so it has also been for us. Like Mann’s protagonist Hans Castorp at the sanitorium, we IMD participants have had our temperatures taken, sought “rest-cure” with an international cohort, and enjoyed an intellectual and spiritual refuge from the tides of history. We will make the most of our time that remains in these magic mountains, and we will seek to internalize and implement the lessons of Switzerland wherever our lives and careers bring us.


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