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Communities of Excellence 2026 Blogs

Trolls, Elves, and Strong Communities

A week ago my wife and I returned from traveling through the lands of trolls, elves, and Vikings: Scandinavia. From seeing spectacular waterfalls, tasting fermented shark meat, to exploring 800-year old wooden stave churches, this is one of the most unique adventures we have ever experienced. And yet, apart from the exciting sites we saw, there was something very interesting about the countries of Iceland, Denmark, and Norway. Each of these places consistently makes the list of top 10 happiest countries in the world. Why?

It was in Iceland where we saw the famous Eyjafjallajökull volcano (try to pronounce that!), the volcano that erupted in 2010, canceling thousands of flights across Europe due to drifting ash. We heard from a family who’s farm and crops, situated at the base of the volcano, were practically destroyed due to the thick layer of deposited volcanic ash. At a time of despair, this family’s Icelandic community rallied behind them to rescue the farm and help rebuild the family’s livelihood. The wife said this sense of community is what kept her family going. Touched by this shared support, she noted that, if given the chance, she wouldn’t go back and change a thing.

A second experience stands out from our travels in Denmark, where my wife and I spent time with Danish relatives. Over a delicious helping of beef, potatoes, and gravy, I inquired what makes Denmark special to them. Without hesitation, they unanimously said it was the sense of belonging and security that comes from their community. “If we lose our jobs, home, or health, there will always be the social support to help us get back on our feet,” they said gratefully.

So, I return to my question of why these countries rank as some of the happiest on earth? From what I was hearing, I believe it is directly related to the building of strong communities of excellence. One of the features of a community of excellence, as well as a solid Baldrige abiding organization, is a switch from having satisfied residents (employees), to having engaged residents (employees). When this happens, the mindset changes from “what can I get” to “what can I give?” This is the mindset that I encountered in Scandinavia. Do we also see this taking place in the United States?

Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith shared some inspiring words of wisdom at the 2017 annual PENworks conference. Her words can be applied to how we increase engagement and build strong communities. First, build a strong team. Lt Governor Smith shared an analogy of a “beautifully balanced soup,” where all the ingredients matter. Second is the Three Musketeers mantra, “One for all and all for one!” Third, nothing is more important than listening. And fourth, we need to “unplug” and rejuvenate in heart and spirit.

The Communities of Excellence 2026 experiment is flourishing in several areas of the country, with more communities joining the movement each year. It is my hope that with the success of COE, more and more U.S. citizens will be able to say, “It is the strength of my community that makes America special to me.”

Read more aboutSpencer Cahoon here.