Sanna Marin: A New Age of Leadership

Written by: Dana Craig

Former President Barack Obama recently addressed young female leaders during his remarks at a private speaking engagement: “I’m absolutely confident that for two years if every nation on earth was run by women, you would see a significant improvement across the board on just about everything. If you look at the world and look at the problems it’s usually old people, usually old men, not getting out of the way. It is important for political leaders to try and remind themselves that you are there to do a job, but you are not there for life, you are not there in order to prop up your own sense of self-importance or your own power.” Obama was speaking to a crowd in Singapore when he gave this message, but his words reflected a story playing out halfway around the world in Finland, where Sanna Marin was recently sworn in as the world’s youngest prime minister.

At only thirty-four years old, Sanna Marin took office amidst a wave of voter dissatisfaction with Finland’s previous leadership. The nation’s young people expressed their frustration with the older men who had held power before Marin by showing up to polling places in droves for the 2019 election. In part due to this enthusiasm by the young electorate, there was close to a 73% voter turnout—the highest Finland has seen in years.

Marin faced obstacles on her road to leadership. She did not grow up with notable wealth or privilege. Instead, she worked for her own successes and at one point held a job as a cashier in order to support herself. The prime minister of Estonia recently mocked Marin for her employment background, calling her a “sales girl” and implying that she is unprepared to lead. Marin also battled judgement about her home life because of her mother’s female partner. Despite the negativity her and her family have faced, Marin has spoken about the “abundance of love” in her “rainbow household” while growing up, and is thankful for her roots.

Marin looks at her success story as an example of what Finland should strive for: to be a country where “a cashier can become even a prime minister.” Now, she’s making history as the youngest prime minister in the world while simultaneously heading a government lead by women. Finland has five major political parties, and each is currently represented by a female leader, all but one of whom is under the age of 35. These women are pushing Finland into the future and breaking out of historic leadership molds.

Under Marin, Finland is embracing different and farther-reaching priorities. She has named the fight against climate change as the top goal of her coalition, closely followed by her plans to increase refugee take-ins and raise taxes to support a welfare state. Her focus on global issues and humanitarian causes distinguishes her politics and tactics from the men who lead Finland before her. Marin hopes to inspire other young people from a range of backgrounds to reach for leadership as well.

Marin is demonstrating the strength and energy of youth in her new position. She has committed herself whole-heartedly to a policy-centered approach to governing, to the point where she avoids reading media coverage that could distract from her main focus: doing her job. As Obama said, leaders are there for the benefit of their nations rather than themselves, and Marin appears to be embracing that message.

Finland’s new leadership is important for a couple of reasons: firstly, it marks a huge advancement in female achievement, and secondly, it serves as an example for the rest of the world. When Finland’s election results came through the headlines went viral. People all around the globe were inspired by Sanna Marin and the other women taking the reins in Finland. For many women in America, though, these headlines also highlighted a stark and disappointing fact: while Finland is breaking the glass ceiling, America has yet to place a woman in the White House. 

During this presidential election year Americans are obsessing over the idea of “electability.” Candidates have been scrutinized throughout the primaries, and those who are polling the best are considered to have the most electable or widely appealing traits. The electability argument has lead to a couple of disappointing phenomena: the top candidates are predominantly men, predominantly older, and all are white. This is problematic not because these individuals would make poor leaders, but because the picture of leadership that this group of candidates portrays looks nothing like the majority of people in the United States.

To gauge the nation’s comfort with each of the Democratic candidates, the New York Times ran an electability poll a few months ago that attempted to measure each individual’s popularity. The poll found that despite Elizabeth Warren’s large, energetic rallies, she polled as the least electable. One polling question in particular lead the Times to believe that Warren’s low numbers were due in part to sexism. The poll asked respondents if they felt that the women who ran for the presidency were just generally unlikeable, and many answered yes. The question was designed to allow respondents to indirectly imply that they were uncomfortable with the idea of a female president without admitting it outright. This subtle discomfort radiates out on a larger scale and affects who takes the highest seats of power in a nation. It is telling that a country whose origin story is based in diversity has had only one president of color and has yet to elect a woman to the White House.

This snapshot of America’s leadership history highlights how important trailblazers like Sanna Marin are. Through her energy and determination, she is demonstrating that leadership should not have a predetermined set of qualifications based on age, gender, or background. She is succeeding in her role despite any judgment she has faced, and her ability to perform as prime minister has not been hindered by her youth or upbringing. Stories like hers are inspirational but far too uncommon. As a nation and as a larger global community we should all work to ensure that someday a country being run by women or young people or People of Color is not headline news, just a normal part of diverse leadership. Sanna Marin came to power with the help of Finns who felt that their country needed a fresh perspective on politics. When they placed her in office they were not hindered by her perceived electability or lack thereof–they valued her leadership. Marin has said that one of her goals as prime minister is to inspire children all over her country to reach for their dreams no matter who they are. It’s time that America takes that lesson to heart and commits to judging leaders on their policies rather than their demographics. It’s time to make way for the next generation of changemakers.