Four months of being put through the mill – the leadership lessons of a presidential candidate

A year after the Sorainen Partner Allar Jõks ran for president, he reflected on the personal lessons he learned during this challenging summer of 2016. We are now sharing them with you.

The Estonian presidential election could be considered to be the biggest entertainment event of the year 2016. The campaigning process tested the strength of the different parties as well as the vulnerability of the press. Presidential candidates had to demonstrate their drawing skills, exhibit their ability to memorize, and show off their sense of humor. What did I learn about myself and my loved ones, as well as leadership in society during the election campaign?

I learned to never have a feeling of uncertainty when there is a possibility to do something extraordinary and new. There is always a way to find ten reasons to say no to doing something. But in the years to come, no one is going to remember you for the things that you did not do. Quite the contrary – people will remember you for the things you have done. Naivety is a resource that one should use without restraint, so dream big.
I guide my young colleagues to live in a way that there is always something to win or lose. How could I not follow the same principles? What did I have to win and lose from participating in the campaign?
As an independent candidate, I wanted to bring change to Estonian politics and to stop the political scene from setting in stone. I succeeded. First, we now have a politically independent president. Second, through the indirect impact of the presidential elections, the party of the prime minister, which was in power for 17 years continuously, lost power. Even though I was not elected to be the president, I can consider this loss to be a win.

Taking the leap

By deciding to take part in the campaign, I risked losing the most important assets that a human being has – their name and dignity. You can lose your family, health, and friends. But when you lose your dignity, you lose everything. Looking back, I can admit that I underestimated how exhausting constant attention can be. For four months, waking up every single morning, I did not know if the media portrayed me as a hero or a villain for the day. Absolutely everyone had the possibility to say something about each presidential candidate. Many people made a point to say something – they had an opinion about my hairstyle or shoes, or they thought that an attorney should not aspire to the presidency.
In addition to analysing what I could win or lose as a candidate, I also had to analyse and determine how to approach the campaign as a whole. Entering into a presidential campaign did not differ much from entering into a new market as a newcomer. First my campaign team and I conducted a market analysis to see which ”products” were on the market already, what were their strengths and shortcomings, and what the consumer, in this case the voter, wanted. After that, we decided how we were going to gain the attention of our consumers or clients. During this process, I realised that the helping clients succeed principles that we follow in our daily work in Sorainen are universal and can be applied in business, politics, and even personal life.

Intent counts more than technique

I had never taken part in the political scene before the my presidential campaign. But what I lacked in experience, I made up for by being passionate and dedicated. I had to establish the fact that I did not participate just to have a laugh. I came to win.

Let’s get real

During the four months of the campaign, I had to make various decisions for which I had insufficient background information and/or limited time to make. In addition, there was no official Quality Management System to follow. I was guided by the principle that even a bad decision is better than being undecided. Freedom means the courage to make decisions, even if you risk being wrong. If something I tried failed—and believe me, it happened often—then the feedback to each other in the campaign team was straightforward and honest.

No guessing

The President of Estonia is elected by a 335 member Electoral College, consisting of the members of the parliament and the representatives of local authority councils. All of these 335 ”clients” were categorized in my Excel table with either red, yellow or green. The ones marked in red were the people who did not support me as a candidate. The green ones were the people who promised to stand by me. Therefore, we focused on the people marked with yellow.
During one of my meetings with a ”red client”, the person took me off guard, asking why I did not inquire whether they were willing to vote for me. I had been too cautious to ask. That was without reason, because I ended up gaining that person’s vote. Another important lesson learned – no guessing. Talk to people directly and do not be afraid to get a negative response.

Leave your ego at the door

This was one of the most difficult things to do during the hundreds of meetings I had. At the beginning of my campaign, I emphasized my strengths, such as being an independent guardian of the constitution. But the people that I met did not want to hear me ramble on about my glorious past – they wanted to talk about their expectations for the future president. Even friends, who know that I am able to express my love through the articles of the constitution, advised me to be more theatrical and to tone down the judicial approach.
If you want to stand out in the media, you need to differ from others. I realized that I had succeeded and did not lead a meaningless life when the leaders of the party of the prime minister started to publicly attack me for my doings in the past. But still, I had to hold myself back, keep my composure, and not argue with everyone. I only responded to the critics who deserved a verbal counterattack.

Treat your existing clients the same as your new ones

Due to the fact that our time was limited and I was under a time pressure, some of our existing and loyal supporters, the ones marked as ”green client”, did not receive enough attention. I was under the impression that I would not lose these people and they would support me no matter what. As one of my supporters started to support an another candidate, I instantly realized that one must treat the existing clients as new. Otherwise, the current ”clients” will become past ones. This principle applies to personal relationships as well.

Self-development is a life-long process
I considered myself to be a good performer. But as I learned from my campaign team, the first TV debates of mine were complete failures. Due to that, we made progress and evolved by practising through TV debate simulations, where my team asked me the most uncomfortable questions possible. I found the public debates to be most stressful, because I never knew what I was going to be asked next. It felt like as I was going to a court hearing without knowing anything about the case. Who is the Japanese Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs? What foreign policy should Estonia lead in Burundi? How should genetic engineering be further developed? I had to be prepared for anything.
One day, I realized that if the journalists can ask me anything, then I can answer anything. In other words – when you do not control the debate, it controls you. Before every TV debate we set out a plan, which candidate to interfere with that time. The rivals who seemed to talk themselves into a sticky situation, I encouraged. But those who engaged with the public, I disturbed and tried to stop at any cost. This process was very much like what is done during a court hearing. When should one be aggressive during a TV debate? At the start of the show, it can help you gain the respect of the other candidates, but the end of the debate is what the audience will remember.

Stay true to yourself

It is inevitable that during the campaign there will be many people, such as friends, supporters, colleagues, who want to give you advice. It is important to take the recommendations into account but still remain your true self. If you lose track of your own opinion, it is easy to lose yourself. In addition, you should not be distracted by public opinion surveys. A month before the election my rating was at a low point. I was advised to change my message, appearance, and attitude. I refused to do that, which resulted in media writing me off as a candidate. The morning of the election, there were three main candidates set out by the media, and I was not one of them. I was thought to be an obvious outsider.
A few hours later, I won the first round of the Electoral College voting and was one of the two candidates to move on to the second round. In the second round, neither of us managed to reach an absolute majority, thus the next round of the election returned to the parliament. I was expected to run for president again. I worded my further campaign plan on Facebook as follows – JÕXIT. For those who asked, I explained that it is time for me to return to work at Sorainen. One must know how to win with grace and lose with dignity.

Whatever you do – do it with passion

As the campaigning got harder, I had to constantly remind myself to give everything that I had. Otherwise, I would always be remembered as being the former Chancellor of Justice. It is often said that you should work until you no longer have to introduce yourself. It seems that after the presidential campaign, I would indeed no longer have to work in Estonia. However, since Sorainen’s geography is wider than just Estonia, I believe it is still too soon to JÕXIT from Sorainen.