Jakarta, 23 June 2018 — Leadership starts with the way we learn to think. Today my alma mater celebrates 100 years of growing innovators who lead positive changes around the world.
Let me tell you a bit about my story of how I learned to think...
My journey to think
In August 1975 I traveled from my hometown Wassenaar to Wageningen to start my academic studies. Little did I know at the time how seven years at Wageningen University & Research (WUR)* would change my life. And that started with learning new ways of thinking.
Finding my way in the university was a challenge, especially making a choice among the more than thirty programs offered at that time. I had already made up my mind to work in development projects in countries outside the Netherlands and Europe. An international career, in other words. However, I had yet to find out what interested me specifically.
Fortunately, when I started student life in Wageningen, the university offered a system of progressive specialization. The first two years focused on general academic studies, which allowed students like me more time to look around before selecting our area of specialization. I was lucky to have that opportunity.
Academic studies were structured differently at that time and took much longer than programs today. I spent seven and a half years of studying, including several internships. My studies led me to a degree of landbouwkundig ingenieur that would nowadays fit between a master and a PhD.
The major milestone along our way was called kandidaatsexamen, somewhat comparable to a bachelor degree today, yet with the important difference of limited validity. If we failed to obtain the final degree within 4 years after passing the kandidaatsexamen, this temporary degree would lapse and we would need to start all over again.
Working in developing Asia
After looking around at many possible programs, I chose tropische cultuurtechniek, loosely translated as Tropical Land and Water Management. This program took a longer time than most other studies because it required an internship of 6 months or more in a tropical country. That was right up my street as I wanted to explore working in development projects in Asia.
Many of my batchmates spent a full year working overseas as an intern in their praktijktijd, and I followed that practice with a one-year stay in Indonesia, where I worked for a local branch of the public works ministry on the island of Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara province.
Once settled in my program, I was given a lot of flexibility to chose a mosaic of subjects that interested me from different disciplines, like engineering, hydrology, meteorology, soil science, crop science, and also economics, sociology, and law. Exposure to these disciplines helped me develop a way of thinking that became invaluable to me in my career later on.
Three ways to think
Looking back, the three most important things I learned to do in my academic studies were these:
1. Take a holistic approach
First, I realized that a holistic, integrated approach is needed for planning and implementing projects that address our world’s complex developmental challenges in a sustainable way—including the management of water as a natural resource and as a service.
2. Listen to the users
Second, I learned that listening to users (clients) at all stages of a project is a key for success. And, importantly, that our listening practice has to include users without a voice, like the natural environment, and vulnerable stakeholders in local communities whose voice is often not, or only intermittently, heard. Whether projects are large or small, empowering users to embrace solutions is essential.
3. Put people central
Third, I discovered that projects are about much more than analysis, technology, and money. I came to realize that they are, in fact, mostly about people. What really matters for better project results is improving the information that people have, the knowledge and resources they can use, and the methods to help them in making better decisions.
In particular, I found out during my internship in Indonesia that projects can be more successful when they put people and their interests central, rather than putting the main focus on technology. This was an unexpected discovery for me at the time, and it allowed me to choose a path to learn more about people, policies, management, and how to influence positive changes (which later grew into the contemporary definition of leadership).
Based on what I learned during my time in Wageningen, my way of thinking has continued to expand and improve exponentially as part of life-long learning. However, the three things I learned to do in Wageningen have helped me continuously throughout my career, first as an innovator in water management and later in becoming a leadership trainer and coach.
The seeds that were planted in me in Wageningen have grown into a tree with many roots and branches.
A century of growing innovators
We now live in a world that is full of complex developmental challenges. Exploring solutions for a more sustainable way of living is becoming a hot topic today for societies everywhere. I am proud to have studied at a university that was among the first in the world to explore sustainable development, showing a good example for others to emulate.
I am lucky to have studied at a university where holistic approaches to development were taught side by side with cutting-edge science and technology, thereby allowing for an evolution of multidisciplinary and even transdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving and investments.
I deeply appreciate having grown up in a university where students were already experimenting and piloting healthy food choices long before this became popular in society and was taken up by industry.
It fills me with pride to see how Wageningen University & Research has become a world leader in innovation for development, for people, planet, and profit.
In 2017, WUR was ranked as the best university in the world for agriculture and forestry. It topped the highly valued QS World Universities Ranking by Subject in Agriculture & Forestry.
Also in 2017, WUR was ranked as the greenest and most sustainable university in the world, according to the latest GreenMetric ranking by Universitas Indonesia (UI), where Wageningen took the top spot.
In the Netherlands, students in 2017 ranked WUR as the best university in the country, for the 13th successive year! What an amazing accomplishment that is.
WUR was also ranked as the best university in the Netherlands for Biological Sciences, Environmental Sciences, and Development Studies.
Congratulations to WUR!
Today, on the occasion of WUR's 100th anniversary, I stand with my fellow alumni from countries around the world, being proud of the positive changes that we have been able to influence in society with the education we received in Wageningen.
My warmest congratulations to the whole of the Wageningen University & Research community for making this happen.
What we learned together in Wageningen is also enabling us to grow more leaders around us who can contribute their best thinking to solutions that will make our world a more liveable and equitable place for current and future generations.
That is, more than ever before, something we need to work for with all our passion.
* Wageningen University & Research (WUR) was established in 1918 as the Landbouwhogeschool Wageningen and was known internationally as Wageningen Agricultural University when I went to study there in 1975.