“We can all change the system together, because we are the system”

Dies Natalis 2020


“Academic leadership: does it exist at all?” If it had been up to UM rector Rianne Letschert, this would’ve been the slogan of UM’s 44th Dies Natalis. The idea was shot down by her team members, and Letschert concurred that the statement “doesn’t do justice to the many, many colleagues who actually possess [academic leadership skills] naturally or have developed [them]”. That said, she would like to see some major changes in this area.

In academia, there is an assumption that those who excel in their field are automatically good leaders. But this isn’t always the case, says Letschert. “I fear that everyone here, working in academia, knows someone who is in a managerial position or a leadership position who is not fully capable of [being a manager].” In future, more attention will be paid to training and supporting people, including young academics, who want to become good leaders. This also means that non-functioning managers must be “deselected”, as Letschert calls it. “Because non-functioning leaders – we can be very brief about this – make things difficult for the colleagues around them and ultimately for the university as a whole. And we do this with respect, because you’re not a loser if you’re not talented in leadership but you excel in many of the other domains that we have to work on within the university.”

Letschert has previously argued in favour of making it easier to demote people. “We rarely if ever deselect people. To be honest, it’s very difficult to get rid of some of people”, Science Guide quoted her saying at the VSNU|EUA conference in November.

In her welcome speech, Letschert further noted that non-scientific staff also need good leaders. She put forward a remarkable proposal. “A colleague from the London School of Economics and Political Science explained how the distinction between academic staff and support staff was no longer made there. That makes you think: why are we still doing that, especially at a young, dynamic university like ours? Shouldn’t we also be able to change this, assuming that all staff work for the same purpose?”

Letschert doesn’t doubt that the necessary changes will be made. “Let’s discuss this topic all together, all of us. Let’s change the system together. Because, in the end, we are the system.”

Motivation and coordination

A brief musical interlude – three students of the Fontys Academy of Music and Performing Arts sang Oceaan by Dutch band Racoon – preceded the keynote lecture. The lecture was given by Carsten de Dreu, professor of social and organisational psychology at Leiden University and winner of the Spinoza Prize 2018.

Human beings, says de Dreu, love groups. We jump at any opportunity to form a group. And groups often need leaders in order to achieve things. “Leaders help groups with their problems of motivation and coordination. They can punish free riders and reward cooperators. Punishing free riders helps groups because group members tempted to free-ride think twice, fearful of being punished. Vice versa, members who worry that others may free-ride can relax, knowing that their leader shields them against being exploited.”

De Dreu also talked about different leadership styles. Research shows that more autocratic leaders create a more competitive culture. By contrast, leaders who take other people’s opinions into consideration create more collaboration, stronger cohesion and higher employee well-being. Organisations with these types of leaders are also 55 per cent more likely to survive. Does this mean that participatory leadership is necessarily better? No, says de Dreu. “When my house is on fire, I do not want the commander to engage in a collaborative consultation about possible firefighting strategies.” Different situations, in other words, require different leadership styles. Universities would do well to take this into account, concluded de Dreu.


Honorary doctorates were conferred to José Maria Pieró, professor of work and social psychology at the University of Valencia, and to Kathryn Shaw, professor of economics at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. Pieró’s acceptance speech focused on the importance of cooperation. For example, his university, the Leuphana University of Lüneburg and Maastricht University are working together on the International Joint Master of Research in Work and Organisational Psychology.

Shaw’s speech was more personal. She told the story of how she was initially hesitant when her eldest children decided to follow their passions, journalism and mountain biking. “I’m an economist!” But after reflecting on it, she realised that this is actually what she did, too. “What I think we all do as academic entrepreneurs is we don’t just take chances, we persist. I took on project after project – some failed miserably, and some succeeded – but that’s what I did my whole life. I followed my passion.” Shaw also touched on the beauty of sharing the knowledge gained from research with other people in such a way that they feel a sense of awe, comparing it to art. “I think we’re most successful when we show this beauty to others.”

“We can all change the system together, because we are the system”