Science - April 15, 2004

Nutrition research assistants get crash course from leadership guru

Each year, thirty European nutrition researchers have the opportunity to take a crash course on leadership, preparing for when they will become the bosses of research institutes and food manufacturing companies. Jane Durga is a research assistant in the sub-department of Human Nutrition and was one of the participants.

The European Nutrition Leadership Programme was organised this year for the sixth time by the Wageningen nutritionists Professors Frans Kok and Clive West. Michael Hackman, a well-known American communication expert, provided the course content of the programme.

Jane Durga, who is doing PhD research on the role of folic acid in the health of elderly people, was one of the five participants from the Netherlands. She discovered that she has leadership potential. “They put us in groups and gave us assignments, most of which were just a little too difficult to carry out,” tells Durga. “One day, for example, we had to build temporary shelters for ourselves using things we had bought with the small amount of fake money they had given us.” Time was short, the means limited, and it looked as though they would not manage to build any shelter, but they managed. Durga was leader that day, and came up with the bright idea of borrowing things from the conference centre where they were, rather than trying to buy everything.

According to Hackman, Durga had demonstrated an important aspect of leadership: creativity. She came up with an idea that others had not thought of, and she had shown that she was capable of going beyond the boundaries that had been set. Seeing alternatives that others have not thought of is one of the qualities of a good leader. “A leader innovates,” says Kok. “A leader is always searching for something new.” As Hackman puts it, a good leader is not so much a problem solver as a problem finder. “Leaders are not afraid to make mistakes,” adds Kok. “They learn from their mistakes.”

The groups also took part in a simulated discussion in which they played the roles of government, businesses, universities and consumer organisations. They had to discuss the recent WHO and FAO report on the rising obesity epidemic.

“It was organised in such a way that we were told the discussion would be broadcast live,” says Durga. “It felt very real. We had to try and work out what arguments the other parties were likely to use and have our answers ready.”

Representatives from the big food companies like Kraft Foods, Unilever and Nestlé followed the participants with interest. These are the main sponsors of the programme, and for them the course offers a glimpse of the future. Impending issues are often discussed, and the companies get an idea of the arguments that are likely to be used and the coalitions that may be formed. “The businesses are also interested because many of the participants end up in their own research departments,” adds Kok. “The idea is also catching on outside Europe. Universities in Asia and Africa have now also started similar programmes, with help from Wageningen.”

Willem Koert

Re:act