Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas on leading with strength and sincerity (Transcript)

ReThinking with Adam Grant
Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas on leading with strength and sincerity
February 1, 2023

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guest today is Kaja Kallas. She's the Prime Minister of Estonia, the first woman ever to hold the role. Previously, she was a member of European Parliament and a partner in a law firm. She's gained international recognition for her strong stance against Russian aggression, and she's also one of the wisest, most unscripted leaders I've ever met, inside or outside politics.

Uh, what should I call you during the conversation, Prime Minister?

[00:00:49] Kaja Kallas:
Uh, you can call me Kaja as well. Uh, because we know personally, I mean, uh, we are very equal society, so, so you can call me by my first name. I, I don't need any titles.

[00:01:01] Adam Grant:
That's very egalitarian of you.

[00:01:02] Kaja Kallas:
Yeah. Yeah, it is. Uh, this is we, I mean, how we function here. But if it is for you, I mean, what is more convenient?

[00:01:14] Adam Grant:
Well, I'm, I'm happy to do whatever you consider comfortable and respectful.

[00:01:18] Kaja Kallas:
Yeah, because I think the topic is, uh, is not, uh, is on one side, also the, the work, but it's more like the leadership issues. So, so it's, it's okay if you, if you call me by my first name.

[00:01:32] Adam Grant:
Alright, well, I appreciate that, and if you wanna restate anything or clarify anything, we can do multiple takes.

[00:01:39] Kaja Kallas:
No, it’s, uh, it's better when we do it, uh, spontaneously as it comes.

[00:01:44] Adam Grant:
Normally, uh, I feel like most of the, the political leaders I've interviewed over the years have been very scripted and very on message, and I love your candor. So this will be, this will be exciting for me.

[00:01:54] Kaja Kallas:
Uh, politicians are not actors. If you are not sincere, uh, then people will know. Eventually, it will l come out if you play somebody else. Uh, so it's, uh, you know, much easier to be yourself all the time.

[00:02:09] Adam Grant:
That’s so true. And, I guess the caveat on that is not everybody's self is equally likable or respectable. So, you have the, you have the good fortune of aligning your authenticity with what other people admire. Uh, and I think…

[00:02:22] Kaja Kallas:
Oh, thank you. That’s very nice.

[00:02:24] Adam Grant:
It’s really been amazing to watch your leadership, particularly over the past year. I think it's, it's been 1) courageous, but 2) also instructive on what it looks like to, to stand up to a tyrant and a bully. And that's part of what I wanna talk about today. But I thought we'd kick off with a little bit of your personal background if you're up for it.

[00:02:40] Kaja Kallas:

[00:02:40] Adam Grant:
So I guess for me, one place to start is I know that Estonia has one of the world's best education systems, and there's some unusual features of it, like kids don't start official school until age seven. So, what did you do when you were five and six, and what was school like for you as a child?

[00:02:59] Kaja Kallas:
We were playing. We were kids. That was before the school, but we went to kindergarten. So you also have some kind of, uh, teachings there. But the school really starts when you are seven. Uh, of course I went to school when, uh, we were occupied by the Soviet Union, and that was much stricter, much more related to the, you know, communism and all the ideology, uh, which is aside, but the, but the education is still, is still good.

And of course, when we regained our independence, we have really boosted our education system. And what is maybe interesting about our education system, if you compare this to others, of course, we start, uh, very early to make children love science, math, physics. You know, children always try to align with their idols or what, which are the characters that they, uh, really like, and, and so we created years ago this cartoon of girl dog who was inventor, and there are musicals about this and, and she's singing about math is good, physics is fun, chemistries and, and now, uh, just this year when I learned that in terms of female scientists, Estonia is ranking top in the world.

And I was just wondering, is the result of this that we have built this up from very, very small age? And, and also, uh, the computers, uh, IT education from the very early start because learning, uh, programming is also learning another language. Uh, and, and children take it up very easily.

But also on the other side, we have such some obligatory lessons that, uh, the other countries don't have. For example, music is obligatory and that's why we have the singing or song festivals and everybody knows, uh, we have a lot of musicians coming, uh, from the education system as well. But it is not putting or trying to keep the stress balanced for the kids so that they don't, you know, burn out and, and school is, is also fun, not only very useful.

[00:05:20] Adam Grant:
So what, what was your schooling like early? Was there a formative experience that led you to say, “I think I might wanna run this country one day”?

[00:05:27] Kaja Kallas:
Oh no, absolutely not. It was totally opposite. When I went to university, uh, I thought that I’m… I definitely wanna be number one in what I do, and therefore I will not choose, uh, a subject or a topic where my, uh, father or my mother or my brother is already there, and they will compare me to them.

So my mother is a doctor. So that was out of the question. Uh, father is a politician. Totally, absolute no-no. Uh, and my brother is in, in the finances, so, okay, uh, this one is out as well. So, what was left was law and, and I went into, uh, uh, study law and, uh, and I became attorney-at-law and worked myself up in competition law and energy law.

[00:06:16] Adam Grant:
Well, it's, it's interesting because you were not only a partner in a law firm, then you did an MBA, and I remember you worked as an executive coach. What did you learn through that experience and what was, what was that detour all about?

[00:06:27] Kaja Kallas:
I started very early, and this is of course, related to our country's history because we regained our independence in 1991. So by the time when I went to a university, we had to build the country from scratch, everything.

So in the Soviet Union, you didn't have any private, uh, property. So you didn't have any civil laws. Uh, so everything, uh, laws on, on agreements, everything, had to be written from scratch.

And those who were writing it were the students in the, in the law school because they were speaking languages and took all the best practices from all around the world to write those laws. And, and so it was also logical that you started to practice very early. And it is funny when you look back, uh, to that time, but then everything was evolving so fast.

And so, by the age of 27, I was already a partner in the biggest law firm, and I was like, “Okay, is this it? Is this, uh, for the rest of my life?” Because my colleagues, uh, partners in finished law firms, for example, they were over 60. They were playing golf all day, and I was playing golf with them, but I was like 28.

I was like, “Is that my whole life?” And then of course when you practice law, you see what could be better. And you give advice. You are, uh, consultant, uh, but somebody else makes the decisions. You give advice and, and you can see that, “Oh, this is so wrong decision that this guy is making”, but, but it's their responsibility, not yours. You just give the advice.

So in politics, you are actually making the rules. Uh, so it took me, um, some, quite some time to still go, uh, to politics. And it might be that, you know, some are saying that it's in your blood. You can't fight it really, if you, even if you think that I will never go because I don't want to be compared to anybody.

[00:08:32] Adam Grant:
Well, it, I think it's fair to say some people would say that you came from Estonia's Royal Family of Politics. Right? Your, your father was Prime Minister. I know your great-grandfather was one of the founders of the original republic and also first the police chief. Right? And yet it seems like the, the direct influence of that bloodline was, was less about you saying, “I wanna be a politician”, and more channeling a high level of ambition. Like I'm struck that you, you wanted to be number one. Why, why was being the best so important to you?

[00:09:02] Kaja Kallas:
Yeah. Well, uh, that's actually very interesting. Uh, my brother at one point gave me this book, I don't remember the author, but it was, uh, Now Discover Your Strengths, and there are like 36 different strengths and, and I was reading it.

And it's like, “Oh, this is my strength. No, no, this is my strength”, but then there's a test as well. So I took the test and, and then it turned out that one of my, uh, you know, core strengths is competitiveness. And I was like, “I'm not competitive at all.” And my brother was like, “No, you know, playing board games with you is completely nuts because you always want to win.” So I guess, you know, you can't fight your nature really.

[00:09:43] Adam Grant:
It's hard, hard to fight. And I know the, the folks at Gallup and Marcus Buckingham will be excited to know that you took the strengths finder.

[00:09:50] Kaja Kallas:

[00:09:50] Adam Grant:
And gained some, some self, self-insight into that. I think that oftentimes when people are competitive, that's about, you know, not only being at the top, but also taking others down. But that doesn't strike me as your philosophy at all, right? I think, I think you want to be the best in a way that lifts other people up. Talk to me about that a little bit.

[00:10:10] Kaja Kallas:
Yeah, absolutely. I, I mean, in politics you see this a lot that, uh, you know, somebody's not doing that well, so he's pulling down the others, but you are not, uh, uh, somehow appearing taller if you are just pulling down the others. You are still small yourself if, if you do that or, or not, not as tall.

One of my philosophies is you have to treat everybody with respect, not considering what their position is or, or what they do. Uh, because, uh, you know, there's a saying that you meet everybody two times in the, in your life, once when you go up, and the other time, when you go downhill.

If you treat people badly when you go uphill, it will sure come to you when you are going downhill, and you need the, the support of others when you are going downhill. And we all are, I mean, we just can't go up all the time. There are good times and bad times. And, and this is, I think, the, the fundamental principle that I've always been dealing with. And, and I think this, this plays at least to my own, um, conscious as well, that I'm not doing, uh, doing any harm to others.

[00:11:26] Adam Grant:
Well, this, this tracks so beautifully with my research on givers and takers and why it's, it's better to, to climb in a way that elevates other people as opposed to trying to undermine them.

[00:11:36] Kaja Kallas:
No, uh, I, uh, I totally agree with you that uh, if you do things, uh, not because you are trying to see your own self-interest in everything… I do. I will only help you because it will help me later on. You will just do this and it will all pay back in the end, even if you don't know how it is. Uh, just take the opportunities. Always give a good word if you have the good word to give.

So if you give, uh, if you give, uh, from your candle, uh, your flame, your flame is still, still there. I mean, your candle is still lit. I think this is, uh, this is a very, very good principle. I mean, if you, you know, give a good word or do something positive, then, uh, you know, you get the positive feeling for this as well, even if you don't, you know, see anything tangible out of this.

And the other person, uh, does as well. And maybe he or she will go, um, and, and give this to others. And, um, today, uh, one of my friends wrote to me that she's saw, uh, uh, one conductor, a very good Estonian conductor Arvo Pärt at the market. And so, she went to her car and, uh, sat down and thought that Kaja would have gone, and said that I really admire his work. So she went back and said to him, “Thank you for your work.”

[00:12:57] Adam Grant:
That is such a lovely story. Kaja, you're reminding me of, of some research that was published recently by Cacar and Steven Nathan. They did eight studies, almost 150,000 people, tracking what happens when leaders are, are obsessed with being dominant and asserting their authority. And it turns out that one of the side effects of being an aggressive and combative leader is that the people below you and around you stop helping each other because you're sending a signal that success is a zero-sum game, right?

And people think, “Okay, I have to be cutthroat and I have to make sure other people fail if I want to succeed.” And that undermines collaboration across every level if people are too competitive at the top, and I, I think about that a lot in workplaces, right? That if, if we have leaders who are determined to, to, to be in charge all the time and to give other people orders and to, you know, to, to say, “Look, you, you cannot get ahead, uh, unless other people are falling behind.” That makes it really difficult for people to work together and actually become more than the sum of their parts.

This is, I think, a dynamic that exists on a much greater scale in your life, right? As, as Prime Minister, you are a role model and you set the tone, you know, not only in workplaces, right, but for the entire Estonian society around, is this a zero-sum world? Can we help each other in ways that, that actually make everyone better? Uh, or must it be one, one person for him or herself? Talk to me about that a little bit and, and how you think about being a role model.

[00:14:23] Kaja Kallas:
Uh, well, uh, I don't think about this too often, or actually I don't think about this at all. I am, I am as I am, and as, as I've always been. But yeah, I, I get this a lot, uh, that, uh, people write to me and the things that they say is that you are inspirational. And I think, um, uh, also, I mean, lifting people so that they can do their work better. I mean, it's also about delegation, but it's also about trusting people. And sometimes, it's very very hard to, you know, delegate and really trust the people to do that work and not to take it, uh, from him or her and, and just, “I will, I will do this myself.”

Because eventually, I will be responsible. I mean, when something goes wrong, it always comes to my level. And, and it would be so easy to say that he or she didn't do her or his job, uh, correctly, and, and I don't really mind. But, uh, but it is that I have to trust, uh, trust them. And if people feel that you trust them, uh, they also take the responsibility to do their work assignments better because they see that you trust them. So, I think trusting people to do their jobs and, and letting it go, uh, also is, is quite, quite important.

[00:15:43] Adam Grant:
You're articulating something that would be very high on my list of fundamental leadership principles, which is that weak leaders give blame and take credit, and strong leaders give trust and take responsibility.

[00:15:54] Kaja Kallas:
Yeah. Absolutely agree with that. I absolutely agree with that. And it is also making the people want to work for you, not because you are, you know, somehow pushing them, but, but, uh, but it just somehow comes that they want to, uh, do their best because, uh, they see that you are doing this as well.

[00:16:15] Adam Grant:
Well that, that brings me to a very visible example of a leader who has not modeled the principles that you subscribe to, who you have had to deal with in a, I think, a very difficult crisis over the past year, which is Vladimir Putin.

I know you share a border with Russia. You've seen the threat coming for a long time, not just from the occupation, but all the way back to your mother, I think was deported to Siberia by the Soviets when she was a baby. Is that right?

[00:16:41] Kaja Kallas:
That is the story of, of my family, but not only my family, but many other families. So my mother was six months old baby when she was deported in, uh, cattle wagon for three, three weeks was the journey, uh, to Siberia, uh, in together with, uh, her mother and, and great, uh, my great-grandmother as well.

And, uh, they were there for, for 10 years. My, uh, grandfather was sent to Russia, Russian and Siberian prison camp. Um, so this is, uh, the story, uh, behind the Iron Curtain. And, and this is not unique, but, a story of many families. Maybe my family's story is, is, um, with the positive ending because they came back, and they all survived, which was not for the fifth of our population, so…

[00:17:35] Adam Grant:
I imagine that those experiences are, are vivid in your mind when you think about how to deal with Russia today.

[00:17:42] Kaja Kallas:
Uh, absolutely. For our country, for our people, everything that we see in Ukraine right now, uh, actually is like playing our history books happening all over again. The same things that happened: deportations, tortures, rapes, uh, killings, all of it. And, and therefore we have never been naive towards, uh, Russia, uh, uh, and, and our history has taught us that very, very painfully.

I am of the lucky generation that I remember when it was, um, during the occupation. I remember when we didn't have any freedom at all. Therefore, I don't take freedom for granted. People even, you know, three years younger than me, they don't remember the Soviet times. So they are like all the other Western Europeans, uh, taking the freedom for granted. But I think it's totally different approach. Uh, I’m of the lucky generation who didn't have anything and then everything was there. We can travel, we can choose, we can, you know, do whatever we like. Uh, whereas the generation of my grandmother’s is the generation that had it all, and it was all taken from them. So we sort of feel, um, in debt, uh, to that generation.

[00:19:03] Adam Grant:
That, that perspective, I think helps to explain the strong stance you've taken. And I, I was watching this even before Russia invaded Ukraine. I saw you speak out against their human rights violations. I remember back in January of 2022, you made a commitment to sending defense weapons, and I think many countries were just beginning to consider the possibility of an invasion at that point.

You were already making a, a meaningful promise, and I know that in the past year, you have been the world leader in military equipment sent to Ukraine as a portion of GDP. You've also spoken vocally against compromise and said we should not do that. So how do you think about leading through this crisis and what is it gonna take to eventually get to peace?

[00:19:44] Kaja Kallas:
I mean, it takes that Russia goes back to their borders and withdraws the troops. I think, uh, this aggression cannot pay off because one thing that, uh, uh, that I have, you know, start to think, uh, during this war or understand is the definition of, uh, of, uh, of war and peace, really. Uh, meaning that, uh, if you ask any child, it is very clear. War is bad. Peace is good, but there is also, you know, differences between peace and peace, meaning that peace for your side of the Iron Curtain meant that you were building up your countries, your prosperity, uh, well-being of people, whereas peace on our side of the Iron Curtain meant the tortures killings, pressuring down culture, erasing our, our culture, our language, all of it.

So, so this is what will happen on the occupied territories, and therefore it is extremely important to, uh, see that you don't really negotiate with terrorists. Uh, you don't give in to terrorists because, uh, appeasement will only strengthen them. And, you know, there will be a pause maybe one year, two years, and everything will continue in a much broader scale.

So in order to stop this, we have to be very, very firm that we are not giving in. And of course, it is up to Ukraine to say. But so far what we can do is help them with military aid, with humanitarian aid, also political, uh, aid in, in keeping the international rules-based order together, and also the pressure on Russia to really, really stop this war.

[00:21:42] Adam Grant:
There's been a lot of discussion about off-ramps and the challenge of giving Putin away to pull out while still saving face and protecting his ego and image. How do you think that will happen?

[00:21:53] Kaja Kallas:
That will happen very easily. And why? Because Russia is not the democracy. Russia is not the free society. We can see that, uh, Putin can, uh, you know, say anything or, or justify anything in his propaganda machine. So I'm not worrying about saving his face at all. I think, you know, he can go back to Russia and say that great success… Uh, Ukraine didn't invade Russia. Uh, we managed to defend our borders, and it'll be a victory for him because the propaganda, all the, uh, news is, is, uh, dominated by him.

[00:22:32] Adam Grant:
That's fascinating, because I think it then suggests that this is actually not as difficult a task as many people have assumed.

[00:22:39] Kaja Kallas:
Absolutely not. I've given a book called Dictator’s Handbook to several leaders of, of the world and why? Because to understand how Putin thinks, the problem is that we see him through our Democratic lens. Uh, the way our world works.

I mean, if I, as a leader of the country would say that, “Let’s invade our neighboring country”, then, you know, I would be voted down. I would have protests of, uh, soldiers, mothers on the streets, whereas it is not the democracy there. Uh, the only thing he worries about is cronies around him. Happy army police, all the power structures happy, and he's in power, uh, because everything is under his control. So we have to see it through his lens and therefore I'm not worrying, uh, about, uh, his face at all.

[00:23:35] Adam Grant:
That means then you're looking at a different set of levers for persuasion that you want to get through to some of the, the key military personnel, that you want to get through to some of the oligarchs. And it seems like some of that progress has already happened.

[00:23:47] Kaja Kallas:
Exactly, exactly. There are, uh, several levels of it. Uh, one is, uh, of course, the sanctions that hurt the oligarchs and, and the cronies around. Uh, so they can't travel to Europe and, and all these, uh, these worries that they have. Uh, and the other side is also nudging, uh, the, you know, special tribunal to be made. I've read now about different tribunals and, and the worry is that the war crimes can be prosecuted by the ICC, the International, uh, Criminal Court, uh, and, uh, Ukraine because they're, uh, committed on their territory. But the crimes of aggression, which means that genocide and, and also the decisions about, you know, attacking another country, they can be only prosecuted by separate tribunal.

And why this is important is to give out the signal that you will be responsible. Like in Nuremberg trial, uh, like in Tokyo trial, there was never a Moscow trial to widely condemn all the communist crimes of the past. If there is not the tribunal or legal response right now, then this will all continue again, and there will not be a lesson for, uh, the history of, of Russia really, that they did something wrong.

[00:25:11] Adam Grant:
I guess in, in psychology, we would, we would call that activating consideration of future consequences.

[00:25:16] Kaja Kallas:

[00:25:16] Adam Grant:
And, and what you're suggesting then is that you can take examples either from, you know, Russian history or from other countries to, to convince people, hey, like the future does not look as bright for you as you think it might, if you continue on this path.

[00:25:30] Kaja Kallas:
Exactly, and it is not Putin or somebody, but it's also you who are committing the crimes right now. It's also you that, uh, that are actively, uh, putting, uh, yourself into decisions or, or, or, uh, implementing the decisions that mean a genocide, really. Uh, so you will be responsible, like there were many people responsible in a Nuremberg trial. Not only one person who committed suicide, Hitler, but also the others. And there's a lesson for the, uh, Russians as well, uh, that, um, this will not be left without response.

[00:26:09] Adam Grant:
Is that something you would say directly to Putin?

[00:26:12] Kaja Kallas:
Absolutely. And I understand that, uh, that also, or at least I've talked to other leaders who talk to him directly, that they are, are saying this, that you can't win this, “Stop this now because it will have consequences.”

Also for you, but it seems to me, in poker terms, he's all in, actually. Uh, he doesn't have, uh, any, any way to back down. The thing from the Dictator’s Handbook again, is that when the cronies around him see that, “Okay, with this guy, we are all going down.” Uh, but, uh, usually, and it is also the case for Putin. Uh, he has eliminated all the alternatives. Uh, so, so the cronies are looking like, “Okay, with this guy we go down, but is there somebody else that we can, you know, uh, turn to?” And, and of course that is a very difficult question.


[00:27:10] Adam Grant:
I think it might be time for our lightning rounds. Are you up for it?

[00:27:14] Kaja Kallas:
Uh, okay. Try. Let’s try.

[00:27:16] Adam Grant:
So I guess the first question I'd love to ask is, what is the worst piece of leadership advice you've ever received?

[00:27:24] Kaja Kallas:
Be manly. Be like a mam. And that, that was quite funny at first. But uh, you know, I'm not a man. That doesn't mean that I'm worse, but I'm just not a man.

[00:27:36] Adam Grant:
We're gonna talk more about that in a few minutes. Stay tuned. Is there a favorite piece of advice that you've gotten maybe in the early days when you were first stepping into office?

[00:27:45] Kaja Kallas:
This is what I already talked about, the respect part that, uh, you know, respect all the people, uh, no matter what, uh, they do. I think this is important. And one more: don’t do anything for money, actually. So if you are making a decision because they offer you a lot of, uh, money for this, but uh, you are not really sure, then don't decide over money because, uh, decisions made for money are always wrong decisions.

[00:28:14] Adam Grant:
Excellent. Who are your leadership role models?

[00:28:17] Kaja Kallas:
I don't really have a, you know, somebody that I can point out because I like to, you know, take bits and pieces from, uh, from different parts. From some leaders, I really like their speeches. Other leaders, I like how they are politically really playing the ground, so can't really point out any specific leader.

[00:28:38] Adam Grant:
Is there one in particular that you've admired for a specific skill?

[00:28:43] Kaja Kallas:
I have admired, uh, of course, Zelenskyy also a specific skill, which is communication, uh, and, and very, very straight and, and good, uh, you know, uh, messages.

[00:28:55] Adam Grant:
You've had a chance to see Zelenskyy behind the scenes, working with him up close. What have you learned about effective communication from, from being backstage that the rest of the world doesn’t see?

[00:29:05] Kaja Kallas:
We can all see that, uh, Ukraine is definitely winning on the, on the information war side because they have been communicating all the time, not hiding behind, talking about very difficult questions and, and giving information all the time, like every day. And really with a very simple, you know, simple sentences because in times of crisis, people need a very simple, very straight talk.

[00:29:37] Adam Grant:
You said at the very beginning that, that a leader is not an actor, but watching Zelenskyy has made me rethink that a little bit and made me wonder if at least leaders should take an acting class or an improv comedy class to, to learn how to better convey their, their authentic emotions and, and ideas. Do you think that's, that's worthwhile? Is that something you would recommend to other leaders?

[00:29:57] Kaja Kallas:
I don't think Zelenskyy plays anybody else. This is, I mean, why I say that we are not actors is that if you try to play somebody else, uh, that, that you are actually not, then it will come out eventually. Zelenskyy is, uh, is the same person, uh, as he’s said, behind the scenes. Uh, for him, I think what is the positive side is actually the shows that they had, uh, and really entertainment business, uh, understanding how to reach people, uh, how to make them, uh, you know, listen, how to make their, or get their attention. I mean, in, in nowadays world, this is the crucial point. How to get the attention of people.

[00:30:38] Adam Grant:
Kaja, one of my favorite things about you is that you're a fan of, of behavioral science. I know you do a lot of reading and also a lot of podcast listening. So, what do you read and listen to?

[00:30:49] Kaja Kallas:
Right now, I don't have that much time, of course, uh, to, to read that I had before. But, uh, but I like, uh, also some podcasts. I like Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. I like Radiolab. They have different, uh, uh, aspects, uh, so that you can, you can take, uh, uh, and, and of course, your, your podcasts are also very interesting to, to listen.

But nowadays I've been reading more about, uh, the Second World War. Also Russia, understanding all this behind and how to, you know, come out of it, uh, in, in terms of, you know, how to explain things better.

[00:31:27] Adam Grant:
As, as I've been watching your leadership over the past year, I've seen a lot of interesting phrases. In one article, you were called Europe's New Iron Lady. You know, that's obviously a, a mixed bag as, as we can discuss, but I think, you know, many people would take that as a compliment, right? It's praising your fortitude, your strength, your conviction. What have you learned about leadership over the past year that you didn't know before?

[00:31:51] Kaja Kallas:
I thought about this question. It is maybe not anything. specifically new, but it is, uh, you know, uh, repeating the things that I actually already knew, but putting it more into practice and, and those are two things. One is really listening, uh, listening to others and here, I mean that we have been very united and, and what is, uh, been a huge effort for all those 27 or countries in European Union, but also adding up our allies from other parts of the world like US, Canada.

And we have been very aligned. And this has required effort. Because it turns out that, you know, we think that we know each other. We think that we know each other's history, but actually we don't know. And we have to listen to others to understand where they are coming from, what their public opinion is worried about, to address those issues as well.

Because you, I mean, you can't just say that I'm right and you have to listen to me. But you have to address the worries that their societies have and, and also the understanding of how to approach things so that it will have a real effect. And the other lesson is, uh, cooperation. I think, uh, this, I can't emphasize this enough. I mean, together we are strong. Alone, we are much, much weaker.

[00:33:25] Adam Grant:
Let’s talk about women in leadership. You are the first-ever female prime minister of Estonia. It's very clear that you've faced a lot of gender bias over your career, and I know you know what this often looks like from what I see is, you know, a, a man in your shoes goes golfing every single Saturday, and nobody says a word about it. Whereas you take one week-long vacation, and people start calling you weak. What has that been like?

[00:33:50] Kaja Kallas:
As I said, you know, one of the worst advice, uh, that I've gotten is that be more manly. Cut your hair, wear glasses, you know, wear trousers, don't wear the dresses, speak with a lower voice. And I, I have a feeling that, you know, people have this, like, this, you know, this gingerbreads form, uh, that they want to press you, uh, through, uh, as a leader.

And that's a man. I always say that, you know, women are not better politicians than men, nor are men better politicians than women. We just have different life experiences. So in order to have balanced decisions, we need both sides, but the journalists and, and also how, how, uh, some parliamentarians are treating me is different.

I mean, I have been asked five times by different, uh, journalists: “Have you cried as a prime minister?” And I've always asked back that, “Have you ever asked this question from a man, a male prime minister?” Uh, no. They haven't. I think we have to deal with this, but it's getting better because, uh, now also people see that, okay, women can do this job as well, and, and you know, it doesn't really matter.

[00:35:04] Adam Grant:
It’s frustrating to me that, you know, in the, I mean, what year is this? What century is this? Right? That we're like, we're, we're still relying on gender stereotypes and subjecting women to all these double standards. I think in the, the research on overcoming gender bias and leadership, there's a, a bit of a tension between on the one hand, we need to change stereotypes of women, right? And say that, you know, caring about others is, you know, is not weak. That's actually a source of strength as a leader. And we saw that through COVID, right? I think you and I talked a while back about some evidence that when women were heads of state or governors in, in US states, the COVID fatality rates were lower early in the pandemic.

And part of that was because women tended to show more empathy. Now, do I think that women are biologically, inherently more empathetic than men? Not necessarily. Do I think that they've, they've been taught to, to communicate that way? Um, probably. But then this also raises the male side of the equation, which is that we need to teach men, in some cases, to be more womanly, right? In the sense that, um, a male leader needs to show care and concern and exercise kindness and realize that that's not weakness. And I'm always worried that when we talk about double standards, we're asking women to change as opposed to asking men to change. So I'd love to hear your reactions to all this.

[00:36:19] Kaja Kallas:
This is very, very interesting, uh, regarding empathy. Actually, I have been called that I’m, I'm very cold and not, uh, empathetic enough and, and why this is because, uh, when I'm, I'm saying that we are not paying for this or, uh, like the, you know, we are not doing this, then they say that, “Oh, you should have more empathy.” They never say this to man. I mean, never, never ever accused any previous prime minister of being not empathetic enough. And when I am, actually they, I mean like people are considering that because you are a woman, uh, that means you are soft. That means that you can't really say no to things because that's too manly, again.

So they're saying that, uh, you are not decisive enough. Although, if you look at the record, this is, uh, not really true. I'm not afraid of decisions, but, but it stucks with people as well. So how to fight this, I think, uh, what you say, uh, sometimes uh, men need to be more womanly and try to take up some of the strengths, but then again, I say also that, of course, we have our strengths. Everybody has their strengths and, and we also have our weaknesses. Even if we work really, really hard, our weaknesses will always be our weaknesses. But if we work with our strengths, then, you know, we can be, uh, you know, number one and, and again, this is like, why should anybody change?

Maybe we should just, you know, work together and use the different strengths that, uh, that we have.

[00:37:59] Adam Grant:
We obviously have a lot of work to do to, to change some of the systems that reinforce these stereotypes and that continue to discriminate against women. While we're working to fix the broken systems, what advice or guidance would you give to women who want lead?

[00:38:12] Kaja Kallas:
First is that, uh, seek allies, uh, don't, uh, fight alone. This is, uh, the lesson from my past when I was partner in a law firm and, and, uh, we were, um, going through or trying to agree on new, uh, partnership percentages. There was the turnover target for me and my, uh, shareholding. Uh, and, and for guys, the turnover target was much smaller, but the shares were higher because I was the only woman.

Uh, I asked that, uh, why is this? Uh, how does this math really work? And when my, um, senior partner said “But you are so young.” I said the boys were as young as me when they got partners. “Yeah. But you are a woman and you’re first woman, so be happy that you are a partner at all.” Although I had all worked for this and, and, and all the turnover figures and, and the rainmaking that I was doing in the law firm was showing that I am, I mean, a very good lawyer, and then, you know, the fight I took, I took totally alone with the senior partner.

I said that if it remains like this, I will leave. And I did. And then all the, you know, the male partners said that, “Kaja, why didn't you talk to us? I mean, we didn't want to let you go. We would've all supported you and say that, I mean, you have earned a bigger shareholding because you are a valuable, uh, valuable partner.”

And I think this is one lesson, and the other lesson I think for especially women because, uh, you know, children are still very much, uh, you know, the obligations of women… Uh, the other lesson is that be open about your problems. When I was member of European Parliament and I went to Brussels, uh, with my two-and-a-half-year-old son, uh, so I was there totally alone. So, um, they were inviting me and, uh, to different meetings and things in the evenings. And I said that I just can't come. And I didn't explain why I can't come.

And then one, um, lady who really, we really needed to have a meeting and said that, “Why you can't come?” And I said that, “Well, I have a two-year-old boy and, and I have to take him from the kindergarten.” And, and she was like, “I have kids too. We can meet at the playground and we can do this meeting at the playground.” And so we did. So that was such a relief that when you are open about your problems, then others have maybe same problems and you can find solutions. If you just keep it to yourself, there are no solutions coming.

[00:40:54] Adam Grant:
That reminds me of some evidence that somewhere between 75 and 90% of all helping behavior in workplaces starts with just a simple request, right? Me saying, “Here is my challenge”, or “Here is my problem.” And if other people don't know, they can't offer solutions exactly as you just described.

[00:41:11] Kaja Kallas:
Exactly. Exactly.

[00:41:12] Adam Grant:
I’m curious to hear about whether you feel like an imposter, as you know, the first woman Prime Minister ever, and I know that imposter thoughts are more common in, in settings where you're underrepresented or where nobody else looks like you. It's hard to imagine you feeling like an imposter because you project so much confidence and you speak with so much intellect and clarity. But are there moments of doubt?

[00:41:34] Kaja Kallas:
Uh, there are, and you know, it's funny when, uh, when I started in politics, but, uh, but even before when I was a lawyer as well, I read, um, uh, the book by Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In, and there, uh, she talks about the imposter syndrome. And I was reading this and I was writing on this side of the book that that's me. “That’s me with the exclamation mark!” And, um, somehow liberating to read this, that so many women feel like this. Uh, so I haven't been cured from this still. Totally.

[00:42:08] Adam Grant:
I don't know if you wanna be entirely cured though. Well, I, I wrote in Think Again about some of the evidence from Basima Tewfik showing that, um, when people have these imposter thoughts, they actually sometimes prepare more, and they take more time to help other people and learn from other people ‘cause they know they don't know everything.

And yeah, I wonder if, if you consistently have this experience of, of thinking, “Oh, well maybe I'm not as good as other people think I am,” does that maintain your motivation and is that part of what makes you so good?

[00:42:35] Kaja Kallas:
This is true that, uh, you prepare more because you don't want others to find out that you don't really know about this yet. And you know what is funny? When I started in this job, uh, I have the parliamentary questions. Every Wednesday, two hours, I answer, uh, questions in the parliament, and there are questions from all, all the topics and, and I said that what I'm the weakest is the foreign policy. That I really felt really weak. So I really prepared for this.

And now I can't say that this is my weakness. It's not my weakness anymore because I've read so much about this. It's all about preparation, and it is that you are, you are not going to any meeting or any, you know, speech without preparing and really being able to answer questions even if you don't know everything.

And I think the being humble about this, that there is so much out in the world that you don't know… I think it's also quite refreshing and you know, being also curious about the world so that you want to know more. Not that “Okay, I know it all. I'm the prime minister, so I know it all.”

[00:43:52] Adam Grant:
I love that you emphasize the word yet, which, you know, reminds me so much of, of what Carol Dweck often says in her research on growth mindset that, you know, if imposter syndrome says, “I don't know what I'm doing and it's only a matter of time until everyone finds out”, growth mindset just adds, “I don't know what I'm doing yet, yet, and it's only a matter of time until I figure it out.”

[00:44:14] Kaja Kallas:
I think this is the healthy attitude, and this is the only way to approach this because otherwise, you know, it might also be so frightening that, uh, that it might, you know, cause you panic. But if you are, “Okay, I don't know this, but I will find out”, then I will, I will manage.

[00:44:33] Adam Grant:
You mentioned curiosity and humility. Those are qualities that I've seen consistently in our interactions. You’re so interested in, in finding out what other people know. So I'm gonna give you a chance to do something I don't normally do, which is, do you have a question for me? Is there something that you wanna know about organizational psychology that you haven't had time to ask lately?

[00:44:52] Kaja Kallas:
Actually, I was wondering whether you have looked into the behavioral, uh, or behaviors of, of, uh, different countries in the COVID, really? Why was it so that in some countries, you know, there were no rules and, and people just followed and vaccinated and, and I mean, everything went smoothly.

And some other countries, governments were making so big efforts and, and nothing really happened. Can we do anything with this? And I think, uh, there will be studies about this. Maybe there are already some. I have, uh, heard about one, but that would be very fascinating. What makes people act, really?

[00:45:32] Adam Grant:
I think the, the best research I've read so far on this is Michele Gelfand and her colleagues. They study cultural tightness and looseness. With tight cultures, you know, being much more rule-bound, much more conformist, usually more collectivistic as well. Loose cultures, more individualistic, tend to be a little bit freer, and not surprisingly, they found that tighter cultures had lower mortality rates in the early days of the pandemic.

But this is very much a double-edged sword because those tighter cultures also tend to innovate less. Um, and they, they don't grow as quickly. Um, and so I think there's a big question that's swirling in my mind around how do we get the benefits of both tightness and looseness and, and how do we get cultures to flex where we temporarily tighten up in situations of danger and then loosen up when it's time to explore new ideas and possibilities.

[00:46:17] Kaja Kallas:
That is fascinating. I've read about cultural matureness, that some countries are culturally mature so that you don't really have to say what they have to do, and some are, are not. But the question for me, what is interesting, is that how you evolve from one to other. I mean, is it that you know, you just say that this society is as it is, or is there any way to nudge the matureness in this regard?

[00:46:46] Adam Grant:
Oh, that's such a good question to ponder because when you, when we talk about immaturity in psychology, it's called psychological reactance, right? When somebody tells you what to do and you don't want your freedom to be threatened, and so you resist just because the person is, is giving you a command or a direction, and that is like dealing with a small child, right? Like, “You can't tell me what to do.”

And pushing a country to mature. Gosh, that's something we need to think more about. This has been so, so enlightening for me, and also just great fun too. Kaja, thank you for taking the time to do it. And more importantly, thank you for the critical leadership that you've provided on the world stage in such a difficult time for all of us. Uh, you've been an inspiration for me.

[00:47:28] Kaja Kallas:
Oh. Thank you.

[00:47:35] Adam Grant:
Kaja is one of my leadership role models. I look up to her. I admire her clarity of vision. I admire her candor and authenticity. I think of, of all the ideas that stuck with me, and there are a lot, the idea of adding “yet”to the end of anywhere you have self-doubt or you feel like an imposter—“I don't know what I'm doing yet. I haven't figured it out yet.”

The other idea that just hit home for me is, is the way that she captured the differences between givers and takers. I thought it was extremely powerful when she said “If you're pulling others down, it doesn't make you look taller. You're still small.”

And I think we want leaders to be tall, right? We don't want to drag other people down. We want to grow ourselves. And that’s ultimately what being a great leader is all about. Bad leaders stagnate. Good leaders are determined to grow, and great leaders grow the people around them, and in the process grow themselves.

ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington-Rogers.

This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin, original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.


[00:48:53] Adam Grant:
I’ll speak for myself, not Malcolm or the Radiolab folks, but I know I always feel an extra amount of pressure when I'm working on a podcast episode, knowing there might be a Prime Minister listening. This has to be really clear and compelling.

[00:49:05] Kaja Kallas:
Well, don’t want to put any pressure on you because, uh, because, uh, yeah, we are regular people and, and, uh, I think, I mean, for me at least, uh, in, uh, in your work you have, uh, you know, a lot of issues that you are dealing with.