KAREN EYÞÓRSDÓTTIR works for the city of Reykjavik in the field of climate change and European cooperation, adopting international standards in the city’s progress towards a more sustainable future. Here she is interviewed by MADELEINE OLIVE about her work, qualities of a leader, and how meditation helps her in day-to-day life.
Q: Thank you so much for being here with us. Can you share the story of your life in Iceland?
KE: Icelanders are global champions when it comes to women’s rights, although we can always do better. I grew up in a society where I was allowed to believe I could be anyone, and work in any field. As I began to form my own opinions of the world, I developed a strong sense of justice and curiosity, and engaged in diverse student activities at college. I was the youngest board member of the Student Association and the following year I became the president.
My interests ranged from Icelandic opera to writing for the school paper, and I loved to get involved in events that supported human rights. I started to see that there is still a lot of injustice toward women, so my initial step was into women’s rights, for students and teachers, and improving teachers’ salaries. As cliched as it may sound, I always wanted to improve the world, to leave it better than when I came to it.
As an Icelandic girl, I was able to pursue the education I wished on a global scale, although here there is still a class division, and there are a lot of missed opportunities because of that. In junior college, I became interested in meditation, and was involved with the Brahma Kumaris. Then I went to Taiwan to learn meditation in a Buddhist monastery, and I traveled the world for a bit. I moved to London, and the fast tempo of working in the financial industry was a maturing but difficult experience. Then I moved to Copenhagen to study business. I wanted to learn how to change the system from within.
I had done a lot of activist work before that, and I was tired of being angry and standing outside with a billboard shouting. I do believe in activism, and I still do it. I strongly encourage young people to engage in it, because I saw a study that showed that if only 3.5% of a community come together and ask for change, there is a very high probability that the change will happen. But when it came to choosing my field of study, I chose business because I love organizing, and I wanted to change things from within.
I saw a study that showed that
if only 3.5% of a community come together
and ask for change, there is a very high probability
that the change will happen.
Q: Tell us about your work for the city of Reykjavik.
KE: I gather data on sustainability indicators and work with matters relating to climate change. I also work on European cooperation, as we want to learn from other cities. My team wrote an application in January 2022 to be a part of the “100 Climate-neutral and Smart Cities” initiative, which is a Horizon Europe project run by the European Union and the European Commission. We applied and were chosen to be one of the 112 European cities to be front runners to reach carbon neutrality by 2030.
The national goal of Iceland is to be climate neutral by 2040, and the government has its own strategies and regulations around that, but the city of Reykjavik is going to try to be climate neutral by 2030. To do that we need a lot of support. My task in the coming months is to map out the stakeholders, engage with organizations and citizens, and create climate city contracts. These contracts will focus on how we are going to reach this target. I will do my best to make sure our city reaches its target.
Q: What are some other cities involved in this project?
KE: There is Malmo in Sweden, Madrid, Krakow, Mannheim, Helsinki, Copenhagen, and many more. If you Google “100 Climate-neutral and Smart Cities by 2030” you will see the list. There are 100 EU cities and another 12 associated cities like us, as Iceland is an associated country.
Q: How do you involve young people in your programs?
KE: For this sort of project, the city really wants to engage citizens, and young people are a very important part of that. How we will engage them is yet to be worked out, but we are trying things. For example, we have a Climathon, where we encourage young people to form teams and find solutions to societal problems using innovation and creative ideas. And there’s a portal for applications for annual grants, so that young people can apply for grants if they want to start their own company or go into project management. You can go to reykjavik.is or reykjavik.com and learn more about young citizens’ engagement in various programs.
Q: Can you describe the qualities you admire in a good leader?
KE: The best leaders are not the ones who go after leadership roles, but who are leaders in their own environment, maybe without even knowing it. They can also be leaders in their family, in their friends’ group, in the house where they live, or in their community.
A good leader aspires to inspire and to draw out the best in others. Instead of being solely driven by ego (although ego can be a good leadership quality), a good leader is driven by love, by wanting to create something good, wanting to improve the lives of others, and wanting to create solutions that will make something better. They are humble and want to work with people, rather than having people work under them. Everyone pulls the wagon together. A leader is simply the one who manages the process and sees the good qualities in each and every person, and creates a platform or an opportunity for each person to use their best qualities. A good leader does that with encouragement, rather than giving orders.
A good leader is driven by love,
by wanting to create something good,
wanting to improve the lives of others,
and wanting to create solutions
that will make something better.
A good leader is very human, admitting mistakes, and encouraging others to admit mistakes. I’ve recently changed positions, and in the new team we start each meeting with a round of asking how we’re feeling today, where we’re coming from today. It’s great because if you say, “I’m in a bad mood,” or “I’ve had a bad morning,” people understand and won’t take it personally or believe it’s their fault. It gives them space. Our supervisor also does it, and I think it’s admirable.
Q: Where do you learn that skill? Do they teach it in business school?
KE: In business school, there is leadership training and theory, but it’s not always in this direction. We are taught the theory behind successful leaders, and we read cases about leaders who walk the talk, and treat everyone the same, and so forth, but you also have to learn by doing, and by watching leaders around you, and leaders you look up to, and asking, “What qualities does this person have, and why do I look up to them? Why are they a leader to me?”
You can also attend self-improvement courses and life-skills courses, watch TED talks, listen to podcasts, become aware, and ask yourself, “Am I a leader? Do I want to be a leader?”
Q: It’s inspiring and it helps you to grow.
KE: Yes, it’s a great point! A leader wants others to grow, wants people to succeed them. That’s a really great quality.
Q: You used the word “love.” Do you learn to love in business school? It’s a core attitude or way of being. I don’t think you can learn that in business school.
KE: I totally understand your point. People often say that we should be learning these human qualities in school, but I don’t think we have to learn everything in our institutions. If we want to see a change in the world, a change in human behavior, we have to be that change, and educate the children and adolescents around us. I don’t think we can put the responsibility of teaching human goodness on institutions. It’s the love of people, the self-sacrifice and devotion, that shows us.
If we want to see a change in the world,
a change in human behavior, we have to be that change,
and educate the children and adolescents around us.
Q: You mentioned meditation. Are you still meditating? And does it help you in your work to arrive at something? Sometimes we have ideas like, “I would like to lead by love,” etc., but how do we arrive at this? Is meditation a useful tool in your work?
KE: Absolutely. It has helped me tremendously to have stepped into the world of meditation over the years, and I always wish I did it every morning, but I don’t always give myself the time. Meditation is not something you can read about; it’s something you have to practice for yourself. Having practiced over the years, I feel like it helps me every day. If I am stressed out, I do a breathing technique. If I am going into a big meeting, I often go into a quiet room, put on my headphones, go into a meditation app, and press 1-minute meditation so I can relax and be present before the meeting. It has really helped me stay present.
It’s also a tool to work with people, because I often have to deal with many different personalities. People might be having a bad day or feeling negative about something, and having love in my mind and unconditional love for coworkers really helps. I couldn’t recommend it more. There’s never a downside to meditation.
Meditation is not something you can read about;
it’s something you have to practice for yourself.
Having practiced over the years,
I feel like it helps me every day.
Karen is a project manager for the city of Reykjavik in the field of climate change and European cooperation, adopting international standards in the city’s progress towards a more sustainable future.