How to manage emotions & ego in politics with Valerie Sternberg

How to manage emotions & ego in politics with Valerie Sternberg

🎙️ Podcast

About my guest

Valerie Sternberg-Irvani has founded and was president of a political party in Germany (, was co-president of the European political party Volt Europa for 2 years, and ran for the German Bundestag in 2021.

We talk about how Valerie dealt with a particularly challenging situation during the 2019 European elections, the importance of managing emotions and ego in politics and what helped her stay focused on what matters to her.

Find Valerie on

Find out more on, on Instagram and LinkedIn:

Episode transcript

Introducing Valerie Sternberg: joining politics

Daniel Matteo: My very first guest on the podcast is someone who has founded a political party in Germany. She was co-president of the European Political Party, Walter Hoppa for two years. She ran for the German Bundestag. We've worked together in politics. She's a friend of mine. My guest is Valerie Ani, and we talk about what Valerie learned from her.

Early years in politics. We talk about the role of emotions in politics, and we're jumping now straight into the conversation. Where we talk about how it was like to start out in politics with a big political goal. And it was, it was quite a bold thing to say back then, right? Because you were just a handful of people.

And then to say, hey, in a few years’ time, in two, three years’ time, we want to be in the European Parliament.

Valerie Sternberg: Yeah. It was, it was totally I mean, yeah, people didn't believe that we were, that we really thinking of achieving such, such a thing and yeah. Yeah, I mean, it was, it was totally, how can I say, out of proportion.

I mean, at, at the time in Germany, I think we were 20 people who, who were kind of interested in this and were like, okay, let's, let's see what happens. You know, we all feel like we should do something, so let's see how it turns out. But it was very much bold and Probably more than that to to, to think, okay, within two years we are gonna create a party that can actually enter the European Parliament.


The philosophy of action: 90% doing, 10% talking

DM: And there's something that you've mentioned quite, quite a bit. Now, you, you're speaking of doing right. And it reminds me, and I'm not just talking and, and, and waving a flag, and it reminds me of something that you actually said repeatedly at the, at the beginning. And I still remember you said that what we needed was 90%, doing 10% talking.

And, and you know, coming from a politician, you would expect the opposite. It's like 90% talking and 10% doing. And this is something you said at the very beginning. Do you still, do you still believe that, is this, has anything changed about that for you?

Valerie Sternberg: I was actually heavily criticized for putting this out there because, and, and rightly so, I was criticized because people felt that.

Democracy has a large part of talking and negotiation and talking and debating should always be a large part of democracy and, and how we build consensus and how we form discourse and dialogue etc. But I think what I wanted to say was not that. Talking and having a discourse and a discussion and forming informed opinion through, through all of that was sort of redundant.

This is not at all what I meant, but it, it was more a sense of, okay, I feel like there's so many ideas out there and there's so much, there's already so many concrete proposals out there. Why can we not just turn those into action? And of course, maybe that came also from a bit of a, Naivety how complicated in the end things are in, in politics and in a democracy.

And, and maybe also in the European Union. But I think that Native is looking back was pretty good because we and I really talk about us as a, as a movement, we didn't really look too much into what could potentially stop us, but we more focused on. What do we want to achieve and how rather than the hurdles that that could potentially hold us back.

And to me what was important from day one was the doing in the sense of, okay, you know, we started with this huge idea to wanting to able the European Parliament and we had to break it down into very small bites, which we of course, Didn't always achieve, but into little, tiny steps and how to get there.


Building Teams and Instilling a Sense of Purpose

And the first thing, of course, was always and continues to be to build teams and to build a team. You need to give people agency and to make feel like people can also have a, make a difference and, and do something that that will give them purpose. And so, this the sense of doing and acting, and. Always buying in, like always for a greater purpose.

That was something that I feel like I really wanted to pass on because it, it was sort of given to me the, the feeling of agency and that I was capable of taking my own destiny into my hands.

DM: And now you said that you set that goal for the European elections 2019. And if we fast forward a little bit to that moment in that year, 2019 you were, you were president of the of, of vault of the chapter in Germany.

And, and I was also involved in the campaign for the European elections. And I remember there was this there was this one difficult moment that That, that we all experienced in the team just shortly before election, election day. And I, and I think you, and I think you, you know what, what I'm referring to.

Valerie Sternberg: Yeah, very much so. And I was, I also just had to smile because of your humble way of putting it that you were also involved in the campaign when you were actually managing it. But, but yeah, no, that, that moment definitely stuck with me. There was this moment when we had managed to basically break the Wahl-O-Mat.

Valerie Sternberg: Yeah. And take it down the website and maybe.

DM: Let me briefly interrupt. So, the Wahl-O-Mat is a really important voting tool or voting help in Germany for the elections, it's very popular. A lot of people use it to respond to a range of questions, and at the end they get a result, which, you know, shows how close you are to, to a to the, to the parties, the political parties.

So, you get a score. So, a lot of people base their decision at the ballot on that. And now we thought back then that it was unfair to small parties the way it was structured. We did a, I think the English term is injunction, so essentially the court said we were right. The tool in, its, in its form back then was putting small parties at a disadvantage and so they needed to correct that.

And the agency, the Bunes, so it's an agency of the Interior Ministry they, they said, oh, well, we'll do that, but we need to take it offline. So shortly made for the elections. This really important tool was offline and we, we were getting, getting, getting a lot of attention for that.

Initiating the whole thing and yeah, and just briefly from a campaigning perspective, we, we weren't aiming for it, but yeah, I mean its a, it's a dream come true, right? To have attention. But, at the same time, we were unused to getting a lot of attention. Yeah. And there was a lot of negative feedback as well.

And so just putting that back to you, Valerie, is when you think back at that time, what, what's still in your mind about that?


Managing Publicity: Handling Unexpected Attention and Feedback

Valerie Sternberg: I remember the day when we as a board and I as a president, gave the goat. cause I remember our assessment. We were like, okay, you know what could happen.

And we were like, okay. The most likely outcome is that nothing will happen at all. That they will not even look into this deeper. And they will simply refer to us and be like, yeah guys, come later. And then we actually assessed the option that they were taking down the OMA as a very slim, unlikely.

Possibility. So, when they, in the end did that, they definitely did catch us off guard. And what was then happening were a few things, but I remember I. Thousands of emails coming in because all of a sudden, we were on the news also in the Tiger Show with, with yeah. Being mentioned that Vault took down the Val Mart, I think even built, built the biggest German tabloid reported on us.

DM: Yes: Tagesschau. For listeners, that’s primetime news, 8:00 PM in Germany. And we were watching the news.

Valerie Sternberg: Also, worth mentioning. We did have a parallel project, which was called Project Hara or something where we had tried to get into any kind of news, and we had totally failed. But this all of a sudden got us on the top news stories of the country.

So yeah. What happened then? I remember very much that I knew that. If we react, we have to react aligned. We have to keep saying the same things over and over and over again. So, people cannot twist our messaging and we don't go out with different messages. And people really understand why we did this, because we didn't do it for media stand, which is what people said we did.

Which was the reason why, but we really did this because we felt it was right. And so, the first thing I remember was definitely to say, okay, let's, let's align on messaging. Let's get that straight and let's explain to people and take them along in this, now a very difficult journey for us as to what our reasons were.

So, I remember that, and I remember that there was a lot of frustration within the different teams within the campaign team and the comms team, also in the legal team within the board, that there were definitely very different views on how we should proceed. What I remember as well is that there was, we had, there were definitely tears.

There were definitely. Very heated discussions. But in the end, what helped us was then to take a step back and say, okay, what is it that that we can and want to achieve? And how do we get there? And, and luckily we had very, very hardworking people. And I think in the end we made the best out of a situation that we had never encountered before.

So, with a very inexperienced team and leadership and with great learnings,

DM: great learnings, and, and I also definitely, I don't remember the frustration but I remember the, the heated discussions. You also said there were a lot of emails that you received, and this was also stressful for you, right?

cause you were, you were the president, right? You were perhaps you felt a responsibility overall for, for everything that was going on in the campaign. And, and for what, how, how did you deal with that Personally, being in a, in a situation is diff, that was certainly difficult.


Building Teams and Instilling a Sense of Purpose

Valerie Sternberg: Yeah, so it is, it is hard for me to really, really put myself back into what I felt at the time because I feel like so much has happened since, and I did come out as a different person, but or it shaped me as a person, but maybe this is also why I can share learnings now because I know how I handle.

These situations now, and I'm sure that a situation like this had a lot to do with it. So, I think there were a few things. So, there was of course the sort of internal yeah need and ambition of mine to make the team work together and not be frustrated, but to come together and, and be aligned on our next steps.

And then and still turn it into hopefully a success story externally. And I think for that, I understood at some point like, we need to move. The only way to do that is if we move together and to earn the, the only way to sort of unite is when you put all your immersions and feelings and maybe emotional triggers that people have pulled.

Behind yourself and just look at it from a, in a perspective that, yeah, is, I don't wanna say neutral, but it is really about the bigger thing that is behind it and share that sense of. Purpose with everyone to align everyone again on that greater cause. It sounds a little bit spiritual maybe right.

DM: now. No, I'm, I'm curious because for me the question is how, you know because it's taking, saying, taking that step back and being a bit neutral and at the same time, it's tough, right? It's emotional. I can guess for me, for me, I felt the heated discussions back then. And, and so I'm just curious how do you, how do you manage yourself in that, in that.

Valerie Sternberg: Yeah. In the end I think it, I think it is with what helps in every relationship that we have in life. But of course, more so in extreme situations like this one is that in the end even if there is a heated discussion, even if. Emotions boil over. It only happens because we care, and we really wanted to do something, and it didn't happen for a certain reason or whatever.

And, and so what I tried to do at the time was to I remember that there were a few people who suddenly were casting each other anymore or who were suspicious that they, that Trust each other in a sense of does he really want what I want? Or she really does what I think is right, et cetera.

And to then take the group to a level where you say, guys, we are here because we want to get the met. Most votes we possibly can enter the European Parliament because we really want to. Change Europe. And this is such a big task. It's bigger than anything else. And only because of that you really care.

So, and because of that, not only you care, but also all the other people at the table. This is the only reason why we are together in this room and why we are sacrificing all our free time to this cause. So, you can trust each other's motivations and intentions. Do we always do the right thing? No, but we also often after, no.

Which will follow a certain action. And but the, the least we can do is trust each other and communicate as much with each other as possible and help each other in that situation. And I think in the end we manage to rebuild this level of trust between maybe certain people. So, within the board and, and some, and, and, and some of the campaign team between the communications team and the legal team.

So, all the people that we really needed to move forward. And, and then of course, everyone put an enormous amount of work in, once again, a big effort. And maybe to, to conclude what then happened in the end, went up again, I think after a few days. Because we had found a, I don't know how you say a fag life, but we basically found a, found a way to say, okay, you guys can do a quick fix that we are fine with now until the next elections.

But we do insist that you really do a proper overhaul until the next elections. And then you can put it up again and be ready. So, to say better place than before. At least that is how I remember it. Yeah. And so, it went up again. And that was very much part, this was very much the work of the legal team.

While the communications team and campaign team kept saying why we had done this and why democracy needed people to fight for these kinds of things like equal chances and, and, and fairness and elections, et cetera. And so suddenly, we had taken the discourse to another level internally and externally.

And, and it, it turned out fine. And I think in the end it was probably a big, but, but your better place to judge. But a big building block on our, on our success in these elections.

DM: Well, that for sure, that for sure. And, and now, you know, listening to you, I really see this what you said about shifting perspective, I think really that, that made a difference.

So, shifting the perspective away from what do I believe about this? What, you know, what do others believe, and, you know how we all, or do we have the same opinions or interests here? To, to a different, different perspective of, you know, our, our ultimate goal. But perhaps also I remember, you know, what's the right thing to do here?

Do we really believe that this, this tool, which is really good, should be even better for voters to make an informed decision? So, I can really see that as, as you explained now, that shifting the perspective really made a difference.


Leadership lessons in campaigning

Valerie Sternberg: Yeah. And maybe to draw like, because I think you were also meaning to kind of get to what, what is like maybe my big learning or some big learnings for me in politics and of course the difficult situations is where in that probably create one of the ma major shifts in oneself.

But I feel like we all, as people have ours. We have our journeys, and we have our emotions and thoughts and, and all these things. And so, we have a lot of trigger points as well, and especially in politics which is something that is so personal and is, and it is so related to our yeah, our belief system is what often carries a lot of emotions.

So, I feel like the, the field of politics is definitely one where, whether from internal, external, you're always confronted with other people's and then with your own emotions and how do you navigate that.

In general people, but I think especially myself, I will ever completely achieve. But what I'm, what I'm trying to, is to free myself of basically the, this, this noise of emotions which just triggers reactions from oneself that are not the best reactions one would hope for, for, for, from oneself, if that makes sense.

But to instead, hopefully always, or I try to come back to my own motivation, and I try to really question. Okay. Is this because I really want to make change happen? Or do I actually do this right now because I'm building, I wanna build up my ego because I'm not gonna lie every, like I have an ego of course, and it wants to be nourished and it's coming, it's coming up once in a while and it makes me do things that I'm later maybe not so proud of.

And what I just try to do now is to. Sort of create an awareness system of when is it the ego that is coming up and is getting in front of my, let's say, more pure motivations and ambitions for change.

DM: Yeah. So that, that sounds like a lot of first like self-awareness, you know, knowing. And then and managing yourself. It's like the quintessential emotional intelligence definition.

Valerie Sternberg: Yeah. Because I think otherwise it's so hard to not just again, yeah. To have real impact or to have impact that is beyond like that is, that is, yeah. Really there for the greater good, but also to actually be a leader.

And to help people become if you are not working on the best version of yourself, how can you help others to do that? And in the end, I guess this is what we are trying to do, especially in politics. Yeah,

DM: because you mentioned emotions like and this is a massive topic and emotions in politics, but if you, if you could just complete the sentence two sentences actually.

One is e emotions without or politics without emotions is like, or is, and then, Politics with emotions is, you know, how would you complete these sentences?

Valerie Sternberg: Okay. Politics without emotions. And that was, that was really, that was like my first intuition, and I don't have a clue why my first, my first intuition was politics without emotions is boring.

And politics with emotions is rough. Yeah. And that is a very emotional answer because I haven't overthought it.

DM: yeah, yeah. Fantastic. I think we're coming to close Valerie. And you, you shared a lot of learnings already. Perhaps for, you know, for people who, who are listening and who want to, to, to get active, who might already be active, but want to step it up perhaps run for office.

What advice do you have and perhaps advice to your younger self, right? Like the Valerie that just started out, what, if you could meet her travel back in time, what would, what would you, what would you tell her?


Having a support network & inner compass

Valerie Sternberg: There's probably a lot more, and I'm, and I'm shooting from the hip now, but I think first of all what is very important in general, I think, but in especially also in politics, is to have a network of people that you feel like you can trust and that are a safe space to you and that make you feel like you people that are not nourishing your ego, but that are Turning out the best of yourself, if that makes sense.

I feel like there's always people who help you achieve that and maybe others not so much. And finding these people these allies really helps. And of course that only, and it, and to me this is not really about judging. It's more about creating them, this allyship with people that are also driven by this greater cause that you believe in.

Is important and, and I think it includes though that you don't cut yourself off. You're, you, you remain open, and you really talk with as many people as possible and you remain open also to, of course, increase your allyship or the group of people that invest in and get honest feedback.

I think believe in yourself that you have an inner voice and an inner compass, and that you maybe need sometimes a path to find it and then you lose it again. But that this losing it will also get you on a path to refine it, but trust that you have it. And, and work on knowing what that means in on political issues.

In the, in the current world, we, there's so much input coming from social media, from media in general, from all the things that are happening that it's hard to sometimes make yourself, your mind up of what you believe or not believe in what you think of a certain thing. And I think there are often gut feelings and to look into why you have a certain gut feeling and to be fine with also.

Saying, okay, this was an initial gut feeling. Now that I've thought about it more, I don't believe X, Y, or Z anymore. But to follow it maybe and understand better where certain intuitions come from. Something that helps understand yourself and yeah, really dive deeper in a topic. And I think lastly,   I really believe that everyone has a voice.

And, and I hope everyone. Finds the empowerment too, to make his or her voice heard. But I also believe it's hard work and it should not be, feel like sometimes having a voice is being mistaken for having an opinion. And I think we all have lots of opinions, but really understanding, and I think that's maybe related to my first product.

What is that, that inner, what is that voice that I have related to my compass? And putting that work and with understanding things through studying, through talking with people is important.

DM: Fantastic. Sorry. Thank you. Now, now the,

Valerie Sternberg: now the bells are ringing.

DM: and now the bells are ringing. It means it's 6:00 PM in Berlin.

Thank you very much. Before we close, anything else? I didn't ask I could have asked, you should have asked you.

Valerie Sternberg: No, not at all. I think the, the one last thing that came to mind is of course as a, as a young woman who got involved in politics, I have to say I found it in it, it was amazing that the support that I received, especially because there aren't. There's still not enough women, such to say, represented in politics.

And so, I think if you are a woman and think about getting involved in politics, don't think further, but do it and, and find maybe a friend or someone you who you can run with. And I thought what was amazing within Volts and especially also with people like you, Daniel, but many others was that to find a, as a woman, Male allies who are empowering and who.

Are helping us to maybe, hopefully at some point get to gender equality and politics. So maybe just finishing with that.

DM: Valerie, thank you. Thank you very much. It's been a fantastic conversation with you.

Valerie Sternberg: Thank you.


Please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or send me your feedback 🙏