Stories#047 Theo’s definition of leadership

#047 Theo’s definition of leadership

The story of Marcus’ gamification approach is a story of Theo’s definition of leadership

Dr. Marcus Pereira Pessoa prefers to learn something new every year. The idea of continuous improvement is in line with the lean philosophy, which he has studied carefully. Colleague Prof. Dr. Theo Toonen wasn’t always a fan of this philosophy. He used to associate it with extreme inefficiency. That is until he learned that it is mainly about ‘learning by doing’. That’s something he can get behind; he’s always looking for a new challenge too. Together they discuss the pros and cons of avoiding details in achieving a vision. ‘Some may consider it lazy to avoid details. But that is how I work.’

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Monday 6 September 2021

Losing office speak bingo

Marcus: ‘Hi there, Theo! Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand all the information about you on the internet since a lot of it was in Dutch. But thanks to Google Translate, I found out that you have always combined education with policymaking. Based on your experience, what advice would you give the academic world?’

Theo: ‘I should do something about my online presence. I stopped worrying about that once I became Dean. You see, I never thought I would still be doing this over nineteen years later. Honestly, I always kind of stumbled into things, eventually becoming a ‘bestuurder’. So maybe I shouldn’t be giving advice, haha.’ 

‘I now realise there’s no good English translation for ‘bestuurder’. We often call it ‘leadership’ instead. But I don’t think that fully covers it.’

Marcus: ‘What defines ‘bestuurder’ for you, then?’ 

Theo: ‘Well, to me, a ‘bestuurder’ carries responsibility for an organisation or part thereof. A ‘bestuurder’ gives direction. They are held accountable. But they aren’t managers. Because managing is about achieving goals, within given constraints and by given means. As a ‘bestuurder’ I like to determine the goals, the means, and the constraints. That requires a vision. And guts, too. Because you’ll need to go against the current every now and then. And then you must be able and willing to deal with the consequences.’

‘That’s what I consider good leadership. I don’t really care for terms like Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s). I’m a little allergic to corporate jargon in general; I actively avoid it. I have made up my own abstract language. Whenever I need to explain something, I often find myself using soccer metaphors.’ 

Marcus: ‘People tend to use lots of different terms to say the same things. In the end, the jargon you use isn’t the most important, the essence is. If we were to play office speak bingo, you would probably lose. Other than that, I don’t see the problem in avoiding jargon.’

‘It reminds me of the lean philosophy. Lean focuses on the value of continuous improvement. Anything that doesn’t help you achieve your goal is considered insignificant. Your goal would be your vision as Dean. Corporate jargon obstructs you in achieving your vision. Would you agree?’

Theo: ‘Absolutely. Admittedly, I wasn’t always a fan of lean. I associated it with extreme efficiency. I’d rather emphasise themes like accountability and resilience. My wife taught me that lean is, if properly conducted, about learning by doing. I can get behind that.’

Marcus: ‘It sounds like you primarily want to create and help build things. You’ve done that for both the academic world as well as in public policy and administration. What creation are you most proud of?’ 

Theo: ‘In 1984 I spent nearly a year in the U.S. and wrote most of my dissertation there. I used this experience to lay the foundation for one of the first Erasmus exchange programmes. This was in the early 1990s, before the internationalisation of higher education. Yet, at one point, we managed to exchange about 300 Public Administration students across Europe. That was a massive amount of people at the time.’ 

‘This programme has had a great impact. On people’s lives, careers, and the way the academic field of Public Administration developed in Europe. I helped set the stage and I take great pride in that. That’s how I discovered that I prefer being involved in those early stages. Once the idea becomes reality, I’m out. You miss out on getting recognition by doing so. That’s fine – I don’t need it. That’s probably why I neglect my resume. Which, by the way, is not something I would recommend doing.’  

Marcus: ‘So once things start to grow, you lose interest. Because you like being creative and coming up with out of the box ideas. Is that correct?’

Theo: ‘Yes, I think that’s a very accurate summary. People say that the devil is in the details, and I’d rather avoid the devil as much as possible. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing – some may consider it lazy. But that is how I work.’ 

Marcus: ‘I think it’s a good trait. Someone must jump in at the deep end. Right?’

Theo: ‘I quite literally jumped in at the deep end. I was an advisor for the Dutch Water Authorities for a while, as well as our – then – Crown Prince in his capacity as Chairman of the Advisory Committee Water. It all began when I showed Elinor Ostrom around Rotterdam. When she saw the ships on the water, she realised she was way below sea level. She turned to me and asked: “How does that work?” I answered: “Well, to be frank, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.” Aside from civil engineers, water engineers and some lawyers, no one cared about water management at the time. So, I made it my mission to find out. I delved into the world of Resilience Engineering.’

‘Afterwards, I advocated for putting Resilience Engineering on the 4TU Research agenda, wrote a paper on the topic and lectured students about it. I even used Elinor’s work to formulate the ten commandments of Dutch water management. But all in all, I got involved by simple serendipity.’ 

Marcus: ‘That’s the great thing about academia, isn’t it? There are always new opportunities for learning.’ 

Theo: ‘Yes, I constantly want to try new things. Stay ahead of the game. See, that’s where my soccer metaphor comes in. It works for me. But I can imagine that every now and then, it sometimes drives the people around me crazy. There’s always something going on.’

Marcus: ‘I would love to be that excited about life at seventy!’


worked in the Brazilian Air Force as a military pilot and as a project and programme manager. He has degrees in Applied Computing (MSc), Marketing and Entrepreneurship (MBA), and Research and Development Management (MBA). He got his PhD at the Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica (São José dos Campos, Brazil). His PhD research focused on integrating the lean philosophy to the product design and development process. Marcus worked as a post-doc at MIT before joining UT as an Assistant Professor in Engineering Management.

Prof. Dr. Theo Toonen (1952)

studied Political Science and (economic) Public Administration at Radboud University Nijmegen. At the invitation of the later (2009) Nobel prizewinner Elinor Ostrom, he wrote most of his dissertation (Erasmus University, 1987) in the United States. He was professor and Dean at the Technical University of Delft and Leiden University. He was also policy advisor, among others for the Ministers of Home Affairs, Social Affairs, Education and Science, and the Dutch Water Authorities. Theo became the Dean of the BMS Faculty at UT in 2015.