Halla Tómasdóttir: How Can Leaders Inspire Others To Lead?

May 18, 2018
Originally published on May 23, 2018 11:40 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Inspire To Action.

About Halla Tómasdóttir's TED Talk

In 1980, Iceland elected the country's first female president. Halla Tómasdóttir grew up with this image of leadership, and then in 2016 ran for president. She says this is why more women need to run.

About Halla Tómasdóttir

In 2016, Halla Tómasdóttir was the only woman remaining in a race of four candidates for Iceland's presidential election. She came in second, with nearly a third of the popular vote.

Before her candidacy, she founded Audor Capital, an investment firm focused on incorporating feminine values into finance. She was the first female CEO of the Iceland Chamber of Commerce. She was also a member of the founding team of Reykjavík University where she established the Executive Education Department. Halla Tómasdóttir has an international MBA and speaks five langauges.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

On the show today, Inspired To Action, ideas about what inspires people to follow leaders and then become leaders themselves, like in the case of Iceland and a woman named Vigdis Finnbogadottir.

HALLA TOMASDOTTIR: She was incredibly wise, intelligent but yet humble woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIGDIS FINNBOGADOTTIR: I go out in the country and meet everybody, and we have a wonderful time together.

HALLA: She cared so much about the people that she would sleep in people's homes instead of going to hotels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIGDIS: Because they want to know that a president knows how they live.

HALLA: She was a single mom, and she had a young daughter as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIGDIS: Usually, there are men doing these jobs. And usually, for a presidency, there's a couple.

HALLA: She would frequently be asked as a single woman how she was going to be able to be president without a wife who would organize parties and be by her side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIGDIS: Apparently, my people saw something in me that they thought could be good as a president.

RAZ: In 1980, Iceland made history by electing the country's first female president.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Iceland's new president is Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the first woman to hold that post in Iceland's history.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: The world's only democratically-elected female head of state.

RAZ: And back then, Halla Tomasdottir was just a little girl.

HALLA: I remember on the day - on the morning when the votes were in. I will never forget this picture when she steps out on the balcony of her own home with her daughter by her side and a home-knitted dress that some woman had knitted for her and sent her as she had just won. And this picture of the way she greeted people in such a warm, homely manner with her daughter next to her was forever a picture in my mind because it was so different from every other exhibition I had seen of power and leadership.

RAZ: And so this was a time where you had emerging female leaders around the world. You had Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher. And President Vigdis was elected in Iceland.

HALLA: Yes. And she was the first one to be democratically elected in a direct election to all the people. But she was an amazing president. And so I grew up during her 16 years in office. And I don't think I'm alone when I say she inspired us. She inspired us by how she did leadership. She cared about the environment. She cared about women and womens' impact on society. And she cared about culture and languages and our ability to talk to each other. And she had such a clear vision in these areas. And she likes to tell the story of how her presidency did not just influence young girls but also boys because after she had been in office for a couple of terms, a young boy came to see her once and said, Madam Vigdis, can boys also grow up to be presidents?

RAZ: And you can imagine that that little boy's shift in perspective was probably happening to hundreds, even thousands of kids throughout Iceland, including a then-11-year-old Halla Tomasdottir.

HALLA: My friends tell me that I said in school around that time that I was going to run for president one day. I don't remember saying that, but I do remember very well this feeling that this was historic, that this was different and that this was better for all of us. There was something about the way she carried herself on how she appealed to all of us that made me feel incredibly proud.

RAZ: Halla grew up to be a pretty important public figure in Iceland. She's a businesswoman, an entrepreneur. She helped start Reykjavik University. And then she cofounded a female-run investment firm. And in 2016, a Facebook petition got started encouraging Halla to run for president.

HALLA: And to be honest, my first reaction was, who am I to run for president? It's a huge responsibility. It's a big leadership job. I was full of self-doubt and what women often suffer from - imposter syndrome. You know, I didn't think I was good enough. And I think it's a normal question to ask yourself, who am I to serve? But I think a better question to think more about is, who are we not to? If we really care and we think the world is not right and global issues need to be solved, if we really believe this, then I think those of us who do need to ask ourselves, what am I doing? Because we can't point out the window and ask other people to solve it. We all need to kind of look in the mirror and release the leader that sits inside of us. Halla Tomasdottir picks up the rest of the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HALLA: It was the journey of my life. It started with potentially as many as 20 candidates. It boiled down to nine candidates qualifying. And ultimately, the race came down to four of us - three men and me.

(APPLAUSE)

HALLA: But that's not all that drama yet. So on May 9 - 45 days before election day - it was not looking too good for me. The polls had me at 1 percent.

RAZ: Wow. I mean...

HALLA: That was a humbling day, Guy.

RAZ: I bet. I bet. I mean, you - did you start to have second thoughts?

HALLA: I didn't, but everyone around me more or less did. But I think it was the best day of the campaign for me, and the reason is very simple - because when you are that vulnerable, when you're at 1 percent in the polls, you have nothing to lose.

RAZ: Yeah.

HALLA: And so on that day, I stopped listening to all the people who told me I should do this or that to be presidential, and I started listening to my own inner voice and really found the fire in the belly that made me make that decision. And I ran the campaign in line with who I am and what my principles and values are.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HALLA: So it would be an understatement to say that I had to work extremely hard to get my seat at the table and access to television because the network decided that they would only include those with 2.5 percent or more in the polls in the first TV debate. I found out on the afternoon of the first TV debate that I would participate along with the three men. And I found out on live TV that I came in at exactly 2.5 percent on that day of the first TV debate.

(CHEERING)

HALLA: So the foremost challenges I had to face and overcome on this journey had to do with media, muscle and money. It proved harder for me to both get access and airtime in media. As a matter of fact, the leading candidate appeared in broadcast media 87 times in the months leading up to the elections, whereas I appeared 31 times. And I am not saying media is doing this consciously. I think largely, this has to do with unconscious bias. So I did face this, but I will say this to compliment the Icelandic media. I got few, if any, comments about my hair and pantsuit.

(LAUGHTER)

HALLA: So kudos to them.

(APPLAUSE)

HALLA: We ran a positive campaign, and we probably changed the tone of the election for others by doing that. But even with one-third the media, one-third the financial resources and only an entrepreneurial team, we managed to surprise everyone on election night when the first numbers came in. I surprised myself.

(LAUGHTER)

HALLA: So the first numbers - I came in neck-to-neck to the leading candidate.

(CHEERING)

HALLA: Well, too early, because I didn't quite pull that, but I came in second, and we went a long way from the 1 percent with nearly a third of the vote.

RAZ: That really is amazing. You know, you talked about how President Vigdis inspired you, and then, of course, you went on to run for president. And who knows how many children you - you know, you may have inspired? But, you know, as we know, these changes don't happen overnight, you know? We're not always realizing the impact these things have until 20 or 30 or 40 years later.

HALLA: No, we're not. And I've thought a lot about how much role models matter because even in my country with her as president for 16 years, we then afterwards had a male president for 20 years. And so after I ran for president myself, I did a volunteer teaching stint at my daughter's school, and I asked all of these 13-year-old boys and girls to draw some pictures for me, and I told them I was coming in to talk about career choices. And I asked them to please draw a picture of a president, of an entrepreneur and of a teacher, all three things something I had achieved to be or had worked at myself. And so they all draw pictures, and with, you know, all the kids - I went to many, many classes. And all of the kids, with two exceptions, drew a male president, a male entrepreneur and a female teacher. So this just tells us that even in the country that we generally consider to be leading the world when it comes to closing the gender gap and where we had this amazing female president for 16 years, all of us think of a man when we think of a leader.

RAZ: Yeah, but, I mean, I'm sure many girls - certainly, in Iceland - were inspired by your campaign. And there's a story that you even tell in your TED Talk about this group of preschool girls who stopped to kiss a poster of you. Like, you obviously made an impact on those girls.

HALLA: Absolutely. That - when I - when someone sent me that photo - and I still don't know who the kids are or who even sent it - but I was wearing the national soccer team jersey because we were playing the Euro cup at the time. And these three little girls and a boy - they're walking out there, and they just see a need to kiss my picture. And that picture alone was enough of a win for me. I really thought, this makes such a difference. And there were other wins like that, and I've since had countless stories.

Grandmothers have approached me in the airport and told me about how their daughters say they're going to be presidents or say that they're going to run for office because they saw me. And I got incredible messages - and not just in Iceland - but I've actually received messages from women all over the world. And so I think you can have impact in so many ways, and I think you can win even if you don't become No. 1 by just being there - not acting like a man, but being there as a woman.

RAZ: Halla Tomasdottir - as of right now, she has not decided whether she's going to run again, but she is mentoring a number of women in and out of Iceland who are interested in running for office. You can see her entire talk at ted.com. On the show today - Inspire to Action - ideas about building movements for change. And in just a moment, we're going to hear from one researcher who argues why leaders with charisma are almost always more effective.

JOCHEN MENGES: They challenge the status quo. That's the key ingredient. They also engage in unconventional, courageous behavior, something that other people don't dare to do. They express strong emotions. And charisma essentially is in the eye of the beholder, so whether someone is charismatic or not does not depend on some sort of objective criterion. It depends on what you see in them.

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.