A Conversation on Leadership with Dean Wendy Wintersteen

What do you recall about leadership from your days as an undergraduate student?

I majored in agricultural crop protection at Kansas State University in the mid- 1970s. Honestly, I simply wasn’t focused on leadership. At that time, in many of my agriculture classes, I was either the only woman or one of the few women present. That sometimes led to unique or at least memorable experiences. I remember one class where the professor blithely likened the topography of farmland to a woman’s body, which resulted in most of the class snickering. Today in Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences I see many undergraduate women in leadership roles. It makes me proud to see how capable and talented all our students are and, more importantly, how they step into leadership roles and grow.

Did you have a memorable mentor as an undergraduate student?

I was mentored by a number of incredible faculty at K-State, including Fred Poston, who recently retired as dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. Fred was a professor of entomology. He opened the doors to me to work in his laboratory and with his field research for three years. His research was working on management strategies for southwestern corn borer. He was the one who really acquainted me with this thing called “science.” He gave me an opportunity to prove myself. In some ways, it was an opportunity not only to prove myself to others, but just as importantly to prove myself to that personI saw in the mirror every morning. Working on his research project for three years as an undergraduate helped me realize that my abilities, my ideas and my thoughts had value and importance. A mentor can’t guarantee success, but the best ones provide the opportunity to test one’s self.

What did you learn about leadership as a graduate student?

My graduate school years were spent here at Iowa State, after a few years working for ISU Extension. As I worked on my doctorate, I was asked to lead the statewide Pesticide Applicator Training program. If I had better understood what a huge program it was, I might have declined. But instead, I orchestrated a large, complex effort with help from my colleagues and with oversight from the state and federal government. It was then that I got an education in the three P’s: People, Problems and Personalities. This was something that an economist had told me. All administrative leaders had to engage successfully with the three P’s if they intended to remain in their leadership roles.

Who mentored you as a graduate student?

Dave Foster was my major professor for my Ph.D. Dave was my mentor by example. I often joke that he barely spoke to me in the first three months, yet I heard loud and clear his verbal and nonverbal messages. In his laconic way, he mentored me by his actions. From his actions, I learned how to model professionalism, the scientific approach and how to be engaged in one’s discipline. Significantly, he made it clear to me that there are choices in life and that choices lead to pathways with various consequences. He taught me to recognize I was on a pathway and that I was creating the direction of that pathway, unknowingly or knowingly.

What is one characteristic you believe to be essential for a leader?

Everyone who intends to lead had better learn to listen, both actively and passionately. Coming from an extension background taught me the importance of listening. When an agricultural producer, faculty or staff person feels like you have taken the time to listen to them, you have established rapport or a connection. By listening, you begin to understand the terrain, whether it’s mental, emotional, financial, political or whatever. Listening opens your eyes to new opportunities. It also warns you about possible dangers. When you listen, it seems much easier to accomplish the other tasks of leadership, like building partnerships to work on agriculture-related issues, negotiating conflicts or communicating a vision. When people understand that you have listened to their interests and concerns, and have creatively tried to respond and move things forward, they will get behind you. One of my more recent mentors is Catherine Woteki, who was the dean of the college before me. She taught me how to listen deeply, absorb the comments and then consider the information carefully in reflection. People want to be heard thoughtfully, and I learned from Dean Woteki that you honor them by carefully considering their comments. Immediate responses, without a time for reflection, can prove to be counterproductive.

What is the biggest challenge facing leaders of agricultural colleges today?

In two words, research funding. Without adequate funding for faculty and staff, facilities and initiatives in agricultural research, progress grinds to a halt. Eighteen months ago, I spoke at the National Press Club on the great need to make federal agricultural research funding a higher priority in light of the enormous national and global challenges facing agriculture, the environment and the steady population increase. Federal research funding for agriculture simply must increase if we hope to address these issues that impact every single person. So I am in the process of working with other leaders at universities, scientific organizations, producer groups, industry and others on pursuing a unifying message in support of increased funding for food, agricultural and natural resources research.This is not just an Iowa State University problem or an agricultural college problem. This is an extremely important global issue that I am providing leadership on, along with many others, including Brian Meyer, our CALS communications director and the board members and allies of the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation, of which I currently serve as president. Hopefully, Congress will listen and respond with resources and leadership to address this critical need.

Growth and moving forward requires new approaches, not just for research funding but for many aspects of leader- ship. What my experiences have taught me is that striving for something more is liberating. Cultivating a new belief or expectation about what is possible should always motivate leaders. It’s an important part of what motivates me.


Each fall semester, a new cohort of students takes the Dean’s Leadership Seminar. The students are offered the opportunity as recipients of some of the college’s premier endowed scholarships. The seminar, co-taught by Dean Wendy Wintersteen and Associate Dean of Academic and Global Programs David Acker, introduces the freshmen to leadership qualities, problem solving on current issues, global perspectives and responding to societal needs in agriculture and life sciences.

Hannah Fisher, a sophomore in agriculture and society, featured on this issue’s cover, was a member of last year’s class.

“The Dean’s Leadership Class brought together 15-20 first year students from all different backgrounds,” Fisher says. “The best part was everyone was so excited to be there—so excited to learn—even the deans.”

Fisher says she built lasting friendships with many in her class. They spent weekly sessions investigating case studies, discussing leadership characteristics and qualities and exploring global issues.

They also got to know the deans.

“Dean Wintersteen is an engaged leader and her passion for what we do here is obvious—without passion the other characteristics of a leader aren’t effective. She has the respect of students, the university, our community and beyond,” she says. To Fisher, it’s inspiring to have a woman in the dean’s office.

“It’s empowering to see her as a woman at the forefront of CALS. She represents that women have a place leading in agriculture, in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). It’s not just a man’s world,” she says.

Fisher is an active leader serving as vice chair of the CALS Ambassadors and was on the hiring committee for the assistant dean for student services. She was among the young women selected to represent the college at the Iowa Women’s Leadership Conference last fall. She works for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Local Foods as a communications assistant and for sociologist Carmen Bain as a research assistant.