Leadership Values in a Changing World


Earlier this week I participated in a conversation about Leadership and values with the former President of Finland, Tarja Halonen. The conversation was hosted by WISC (Women’s International Study Center) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Following the conversation WISC honored us with their Founders’ Award, placing us in the company of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Ellen Malcom (founder of Emily’s list). While I am deeply grateful for this honor I am also humbled by the legacy of these incredible women leaders and can only hope to serve the world as well as they have.

wisc award halla og halonen

Presented with the WISC Founders’ Award

President Halonen and I engaged in a dynamic conversation in Santa Fe and our audience seemed deeply interested in Nordic lessons in leadership. I would like to share with you some of the topics we discussed, highlighting in particular the issues that are near and dear to my heart.

wisc conversation santa fe

Discussing Leadership and Values

  1. We not I

President Halonen explained how Finland values the WE, over the I. She also shared her secret to successful social policy: “When you make a welfare society, don’t make it so it’s good enough for your neighbor; make it so it’s good enough for yourself.” She spoke passionately about the importance of purpose-driven work and explained how we must push forward when it comes to climate change.

I have long pushed for a transformation in leadership from ME to WE, and am convinced that no business or political leader will remain in leadership if he/she doesn’t consider all stakeholders and measure success in a broader way than is typical today. I believe in a triple-bottom-line approach to business (Profit – People – Planet) and I don’t believe in measuring only economic growth (GDP) for countries/regions. I believe we now need a focus on developing leaders who embrace transformative leadership skills and values in order to allow us to re-design and transform our systems and societies for the good of the whole. We also need the courage to reject leaders who have the audacity to think that their personal egos and interests are more important than the greater good. Perhaps we should start by taking a look at how we educate and raise our children?

  1. Education as foundation for success

Finland’s education system is one of the best in the world and it is 100% state funded. Its big secret is that they have rejected the typically evaluation-driven, centralized education model that much of the Western world uses and built an inclusive system with no tests or homework until teenage years. President Halonen describes their approach as “we keep everybody on board.” Finnish schools have freedom to innovate and create the educational experiences they believe work best. The only standardized test is performed at age 16. It may surprise you to learn that in Finland it is extremely competitive to get into teacher colleges, almost as hard as getting into MIT or other Ivy league schools in the US. Consequently, Finnish teachers are highly regarded and are effectively given the same status as doctors and lawyers and are paid equal to other college graduates. This approach is the result of major educational reform that has proven very successful as Finland comes in at or near the top in standard international measurements in reading, science and mathematics. I can’t help but to ask if we couldn’t all learn a lot from the high achieving public school system in Finland?

  1. Gender Balance makes both economic and social sense

I have always been grateful to be born in a country (and a region) where women have led the way when it comes to leadership and economic and social progress. In Iceland women’s work participation is among the highest in the world and women and men have equal rights to maternity and paternity leaves. I am in awe of the courage shown by Icelandic women, who went on a strike in 1975 and literally brought the country to its knees as nothing worked in Iceland when women did not show up for work. I am proud of the fact that Icelanders were the first country in the world to democratically elect a woman as president, and I know Finnish people are proud of their first female President, Tarja Halonen. These women, and great men who worked with them and supported them, have not just broken down barriers for women and men, they have helped turn the Nordic countries (and region) into leaders when it comes to economic growth and social progress. While we still have work to do to reach true gender balance,  the Nordic countries lead the way in closing the gender gap and are the economic and social envy of all countries and leaders interested in positive progress and development of inclusive societies.

women oct 24th 1975

  1. Values Matter

While in Santa Fe I had the opportunity to visit the Santa Clara Pueblo, where wise Elders shared with us the core-values of their community. They explained how the values of hard work, sharing, caring, respect and family have laid the foundation for their community and guided them through changes and tough times.


Tessa and Nora from Santa Clara Pueblo

I was blown away to discover how similar these values are to the ones I was raised by. Furthermore, these values are remarkably similar to the values that a random sample of Icelanders uncovered in a National Assembly following Iceland’s economic collapse and the values upon which I based my Presidential campaign in 2016.

Thjodfundur Values English

The Values from Iceland’s National Assembly

It seems to me that whether we are born in a native community in New Mexico, in Finland, or in the West Fjords of Iceland, we may have a whole lot in common when it comes to the shared values we desire to live by. Having said that, I also share the frustration expressed and felt in the audience, that we don’t seem to have enough leaders holding or displaying such values at the heart of their work. The question I have is how will we go about developing more of them or perhaps a better question, how will we find the courage to unleash the leader that I believe resides inside each and every one of us?

  1. Humor is helpful

President Halonen became famous in the US when people discovered that she looked a lot like the talk show host Conan O’Brien. She made the choice to approch the matter with humor and the whole thing turned out to be one of the greatest (and cheapest) awareness campaigns Finland has ever enjoyed in the USA. President Halonen also shared the story of how the Swedish media started calling her “Moomie-Mama”, likening her to the mother in the famous fairy-tale cartoon “Moomins”, a character who was all-good and all-loving. When her husband was asked if his wife resembled the “Moomie-Mama” he responded humorously and said that he thought there was a little bit of a “Moomie-Mama” and a little bit of “Little-My” in every woman, including his wife. “Little-My” is the mischievous tomboyish little girl in the Moomin World and President Halonen and I humorously agreed on the importance of embracing both the good girl and the disobedient girl in ourselves. Having said that, I openly admit that while being a bit mischievous, the favorite title bestowed upon me was probably when the New Yorker called me “A living emoji of sincerity”. It took a lot of time and personal and professional development to embrace the fact that tapping into our emotional capital at work (and at home) is at least as valuable as leveraging our human and social capital.

president halonen repairs sweater

“Sisters help each other” said President Halonen as she sat down to fix a tear for me

It is important for all leaders to know not to take themselves so seriously that they lose their sense of humor. Humor can be helpful in many situations and President Halonen repeatedly showed her wit and good sense of humour in our conversations while in Santa Fe. It is also important for leaders to know that in order for them to be truly effective, they must be themselves. The parting message in Santa Fe was simple, if you want to be a good leader, be you!