Leon de Windt: 'Senior researchers are not done developing yet either'

At the beginning of this year, Leon de Windt took over the talent pillar of the DCVA from Jolanda van der Velden. Who is he and what does he think about talent in the cardiovascular field? “I like all the pillars of the DCVA, but the development from super-smart rookies to highly experienced researchers and managers fascinates me even more.”

Molecular cardiovascular biologist Leon de Windt (Curaçao, 1970) brings a lot of international experience with him. Child of a Rotterdam mother and a Curaçao father, born on the island, but raised in Tilburg and, in his own words, “above all a ‘Brabander’, I like cosiness”, he worked above and below the rivers, in Utrecht and Maastricht, and in between years in rural Cincinnati, Ohio. There he learned to appreciate the hard work and dedication of the Americans. “It may not be of this time to say it so pontifically, but science and governance is just very hard work, seven days a week. It is therefore better to see it as a hobby, something that you always enjoy doing. I don't think that's going to change very soon.”

What do you have with talent, why this pillar?
“I like all DCVA pillars. One needs the other, we are each other's base. But if I had to choose, talent development is one of the most intriguing parts of my job. Educating young people gives me energy. It’s wonderful to see how someone develops in different phases, from young student to starting professional. Then they have already learned so much, and at the same time, they’re still rookies. After your promotion you end up in a kind of crisis situation, you have to deliver results, but you have actually already made a career choice. What are you good at, what is your strength? How do you make your resume as strong as possible? There are a lot of possible courses, and the academic path is certainly not the easiest.”

It sounds like you interpret talent very broadly.
“That's right. I assume three groups: the juniors who are doing their PhD or have just entered a postgraduate phase. You find them in the Young@Heart community. Then the upcoming young professionals in the leadership program. They are already in the middle of a career and are considering a role as a leader. Then it is no longer about what you do, but how you take responsibility and make decisions, how you collaborate. And finally: the senior researchers, a very important group for me. It’s easy to think: they have achieved it, they are there. But is that true? These are often internationally renowned researchers, pillars of the cardiovascular field. But they also want to develop and that is necessary. What can the talent-pillar of the DCVA mean for those people? That's what I want to talk about, in addition to the things we're already doing. I think I could be of value to all three of those groups.”

Your first official appearance was during the leadership program recently. How do you recognize a typical leadership student?
“What I see are very talented people in their thirties and a few in their forties. They have already been through something, know what they want, are starting relationships or families or are already in the middle of it. In short, they are busy. I am very happy that they have found their way, at the same time I hope that they realize that it will only get busier after this and that that is really part of it when you grow or start managing. Maybe it's not the time to say that, but I'll say it anyway: I don't see things changing so quickly in academia either. People in the middle of their career have now learned to say ‘yes’, have grown in collaborating and taking the lead and solving major challenges in substance. The next step, to really become a senior, is also learning to say ‘no’. No, you're going to send someone else to that meeting. No, this task is not included in your group or department. No, we're not going to the left, but to the right. Prioritizing and choosing the most important means: choosing, deciding and above all: persevering. That's the art. So I am very curious how things will continue with those people after the leadership program in that area. I am happy to help with that.”

How did you end up in a leadership role yourself?
”I already had the ambition at that Young@Heart age: I want to become a professor. I realized that this involves leadership and you don't learn that in the lecture halls. I've looked at a lot of people. How do they do it? Often I have thought: I don’t want it that way. That whole authoritarianism that you sometimes see in Germany: I have that title and a personal parking space. No, I’m just Leon. That is very Dutch, I have discovered. A charming property. When I worked at the Hubrecht Institute, I had Hans Clevers and Ronald Plasterk as directors, in Maastricht Albert Scherpbier and Martin Paul. They were all very inspiring.”

You are, I think, one of the more international and well-travelled pillar chairs of the DCVA. You worked in the Netherlands for very different universities and for years in America. Does that also mean that you bring a lot of experience with different university cultures?
“I have experienced the difference between America and Europe first-hand. Nowhere do they work as hard as in America, that dedication is impressive. But even in the jovial United States, bosses do get their act together at some point. Leadership for me is about radiating warmth, being able to commit, daring to speak up, daring to give space. The other side is: a decision has to be made, which we sometimes find difficult in the Netherlands. At some point it is: ‘we’ll go that way’. It takes guts to make that decision, because before you know it you will keep discussing, moving topics to the next meeting and productivity will be at risk.”

You have been involved with predecessor CVON and now DCVA for about ten years. Was the step to DCVA really necessary in your opinion?
"I have to be honest, I didn't quite get it at first. GENIUS and ARENA were the first two CVON consortia and their successors were also among the first DCVA consortia. Then you get a different corporate identity and logo, but what does it mean exactly? In the last two years that has become much clearer and also that all those partners are part of one big puzzle. We can mean a lot to each other. It seems as if we have grown enormously, from four to twenty-one partners, but it is still a small organization in which people work hard and achieve a lot. In Germany I notice that DZHK see us as an example.”

You can reap a lot of fruits from your predecessor. What are you going to change?
“Jolanda van der Velden has done very well. I'm really looking forward to getting started with it and taking the talent pillar to the next level. It is still a bit early to say what we are going to do, but I will first have a good chat with the other pillar chairs on the upcoming strategy day to hear what they think is needed. I would like to lift one corner of the veil. As I said at the beginning of this conversation, I would like to explore what I can do for the juniors and seniors in addition to the wonderful leadership program. My ambition is to also build something for those groups of professionals, because we need talents on all steps of the cardiovascular ladder.”