Already in his freshman year, Ossi Heinänen got very involved in organisational activities. He quickly become host of ELO, the association of students from southern Finland, a member of the board of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki and even the union’s secretary general.
These days, Heinänen is CEO of Plan International Finland, an organisation that advances the rights of children and youth, girls in particular. He has also worked at the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare, the Young Finland sports association and Allianssi, the umbrella organisation for youth work in Finland.
“As a young person, I was by no means a do-gooder, but for one reason or another, already as a university student I said that I could see myself working in a management position at a charity. It’s rewarding to work hard for something good,” Heinänen says.
Tough but empathetic
Heinänen has been drawn to managerial positions, for which he already started honing his leadership skills at the Student Union of the University of Helsinki.
“I have always been serious about being a good supervisor, although I must admit that the authority of supervisory positions also has a certain fascination. Being able to have an impact appeals to me.”
“I am also ambitious and competitive. It's always felt good to do well and move up in an organisation.”
What makes a good leader? Assertiveness when needed, but Heinänen highlights empathy as the number one leadership trait.
“Good leadership is composed of approachability, empathy and genuinely listening and understanding others. Of course, there have to be limits: a certain distance has to be kept from the worries of individuals and organisations. Still, if a leader lacks empathy, they emanate indifference and callousness, which does not benefit the work community.”
Plan International is one of the largest and oldest children’s rights organisations in the world, with operations in 76 countries and approximately 10,000 employees. The organisation is particularly known for its work on advancing the rights of girls. On that front, there is a lot of work to be done.
“It amazes me how women’s rights have been in decline in recent years, even within the EU. For example, in Poland and Hungary views that are threatening to the rights of women and minorities have gained weight to an extent that would have been unimaginable in the 1990s.”
“Then again, advances are being made in developing countries. The number of countries that have banned child marriage is constantly growing,” Heinänen enthuses.
Despite steps backwards, Heinänen remains an optimist.
“I firmly believe that tolerance and liberal thinking will eventually prevail. Human rights belong to everyone in the world. They are not a political choice, nor can they be broken down or erased. Equality is integral to human rights – each individual is equally valuable.”
“Equality will be achieved, you just have to be patient and have the energy to work for it.”