Interview with Liban Sheikh, chair of the Left Youth of Finland
Liban Sheikh is a 31-year-old Finnish politician and the chair of the Left Youth of Finland. He studies social sciences in Tampere University and is a member of the Tampere City Council. In 2020 he was invited to participate in The Obama Foundation Leaders Europe six-month program.
How did you end up becoming the chair of the Left Youth of Finland?
I grew up in a working-class family in a small city in Eastern-Finland. Being black in a white society I experienced racism and social discrimination. These experiences, as well as economic inequality, are sometimes difficult to discuss. It might be that some of my interest in the world stems from those experiences. I have always been curious to know why the world is the way it is.
First, I ended up studying literature in Tampere University and from there I moved on to study social sciences because I had this longing to gain more understanding about the social structures that surround us. I wanted to be able to articulate more of the things I saw.
In university I got involved in student activities. I became editor in chief of our literature student magazine, acted as an event manager and eventually became a Student Union Council representative. One of my friends in the Student Union Council encouraged me to take part in the Left Youth of Finland and in 2019 I also became a candidate in the parliamentary election. In autumn 2019 I was chosen as the chair of the national youth league, Left Youth of Finland, and at the time became the first person of color to be elected as a chairperson in the history of Finnish political youth organizations.
Last spring, during municipal elections 2021, I got chosen as a member of the Tampere City Council and thus officially entered the “grown up” politics.
Has being the chair of the Left Youth of Finland met your expectations?
Yes, definitely! I have gotten to meet so many smart and warm young people all over Finland that share the same values and passion for equality. The community itself has been one of best things. This position has taught me so much about bureaucracy within an organization, about economics, administration and strategies. My position has enabled me to bring up or highlight some of the issues I find crucially important, such as environmental issues and equality. Yet one thing that has sort of surprised me negatively, has been the amount of aggression and hate-motivated behavior that people in the Left Youth of Finland face.
What are your views on leadership?
Leadership is often discussed in the corporate context. In corporate world efficiency and pursuit of profit play a key role, whereas in political context other goals are the essence. In youth politics our goal is to bring together young people and to enable them to become politically active members of the society. A political leader should aim to inspire, enable and implement. In the Left Youth of Finland, I have enjoyed the opportunity to practice value-based leadership.
Has your perspective on leadership changed?
Yes. As I have been working in anti-racist organizations and in the Left Youth of Finland, I have realized that leadership skills are as important in these contexts as they are in corporate world, just partially different. Thus, it is good to have some basic understanding of leadership theories. In anti-hierarchical organizations we understand that one person will never give rise to change alone, it is the community that does that. I don't believe in putting people on a pedestal. In the end leadership is something that you learn by doing and growing, and I think an ideal organization consists of many people that possess some leadership skills.
I have also learned that when you are in a position of power it is important to consider how you talk to people you work with, when there are some difficult conversations to be had for example.
Do you have some leaders you look up to?
Yes and no. I admire many people for their different areas of expertise but not anybody specific.
What are you like as a leader?
Well, I think this should be asked from the people I work with. I aim to be an approachable leader that is fully present. I want to enable people to do their best, but I also want to make sure that people I work with will not get burned out. The aim is to create inspiring and healthy working environment together. As a leader I want to keep an eye on the big picture.
Are there some special features in being a leader in politics?
I´ve learned that in politics your working time is flexible. Some things may require immediate action and you must be available 24 hours a day. The work-life balance is something that is not really taught anywhere, and everyone must figure out some sort of balance between one´s working life and private life.
It might take a while to figure out how to combine this professional politician role and being yourself. I think that especially women and minorities struggle with this, since they often have to work harder to earn credibility. I've heard people say that I am much more laid-back and funnier than people would have expected, which I find both funny and sad.
How was The Obama Foundation´s Leadership program?
It was very interesting! We had some world-class lectures and both formal and informal conversations about leadership. I learned that there is so much that I can learn from other countries and people in other fields. The experience highlighted the importance of learning. I really like the Civil Rights Movement´s saying “each one teach one” because it sums up beautifully how you can always learn something from other people. Leadership is no exception, it is not rocket science, you learn it by doing and you learn from other people. □