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Peter Gudmundson, President of KTH Royal Institute of Technology, in the university library. (Photo:

A winning attitude

KTH President's straightforward style focuses on results

Published Mar 18, 2014

In a time when being seen and heard is a priority for many, Peter Gudmundson is focused on performance and results.

As President of KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Gudmundson wants to act, not just sound off.

“Good results speak for themselves,” he says.

On the sixth floor of what is sometimes called the President’s building at KTH, Gudmundson sits in a room with green swivel chairs, a visitors’ table and a desk. In the window by his computer a white orchid arches over framed photos. His is a workspace befitting the leader of Sweden’s biggest technical university – and one of the leading such institutions in Europe. 

Gudmundson is in his second term as President. He took office in 2007, and he was reinstated for three more years in 2013. In theory, he could serve an additional three years when his present term is completed. But it's not likely.

“That might be too much of a good thing,” he says, laughing. “Nine years is a long time - longer than the U.S. president sits.”

He pauses thoughtfully before speaking, forming his answers with care. He is not only economical with words – he is gentle with them. As a professor and scientist, he is conscious of the weight that words carry. On the other hand, he laughs easily – and often.

“I may not always be so talkative, and for that I have been criticised; but it's a choice I made - to primarily focus on developing and managing KTH internally, instead of focusing on many external commitments. It is different.”

Peter Gudmundson is a listening leader who believes in teamwork. (Photo: Susanne Kronholm)

But with the position comes a responsibility to make one’s voice heard, and he has engaged in public debate on a number of occasions. Among other things, he has spoken out about Sweden's need for foreign students and warned against the glaring shortage of teachers in mathematics, natural sciences and technology in Swedish schools.

“Both of these issues must be resolved. Otherwise, they can have serious consequences for Sweden's future competitiveness,” he says.

Gudmundson typically arrives at work at 8 a.m. and leaves sometime after 6 p.m. His agenda is usually packed with meetings. Everyone wants him, as well as the symbolic value and high status that his office confers.

“Sometimes I wonder if anybody really remembers what I say when I deliver introductory remarks – even myself.” 

And then that laugh, again.

A couple of nights per week, Gudmundson’s work takes the form of meetings and dinners. The job also includes representing KTH at academic ceremonies such as promotions and the installation of professors. Last fall, at Stockholm’s City Hall, he presided over the installation with a calm and assured voice. And at the banquet that followed, he was seated beside the just-appointed honorary doctor Antonia Ax:son Johnson, the prominent Swedish business leader.

How did it go at the table?

“Well, that I cannot answer. Better to ask the ladies about it.”

As head of KTH, with more than 550 professors and lecturers, in addition to the doctoral students and other researchers in 10 schools, the President has a great deal to focus on. KTH has a total of 4,900 employees and 15,000 students. It's a big team, in which academic freedom and scientific independence must also be taken into account.

“The team is bigger than the individual and it is important to have a broad discussion when an activity is to be developed and be changed toward a common goal,” he says. “KTH is an institution with strong traditions, so change takes time.”

His leadership style is straightforward. He tries to be open, listen carefully, and be accessible and transparent.

Outside of the so-called President's building. (Photo: Susanne Kronholm)

“Just as we who are positions of authority should be,” he says.

Gudmundson stresses that he is careful to steer towards goals and follow up on them, and to respect the decision-making structure.

“I am fortunate to work with many capable people, in whom I have great confidence. I love to delegate,” he says.

The goals he is focused on are in both the long-term Vision 2027 and in the Development Plan 2013-16, which is the basis for various action plans and policies at different levels in the organization.

As a former hockey player, it is perhaps no surprise that Gudmundson draws upon the language of sports – his conversation is peppered with references to “teamwork”, “interaction”, “game distribution” and “trust in teammates” – when he talks about himself as a manager and coach.

Moreover, he likes to win.

“Yes, I'm very competitive,” he says. “Sometimes I pull myself back so that it does not gain the upper hand – it can make me impatient sometimes. But, I do not give up easily.”

Gudmundson grew up in Leksand, a small town in the rural county of Dalarna, about 250 kilometres northeast of Stockholm. He was the oldest of four children. His father was a surveyor, and his mother was a nurse. And an academic career awaited him, in all likelihood.

What were you like as a child?

“Like most kids. I played with friends. I played football and then I joined the Leksand IF hockey team.”

In the mid 1970s, he left for the big city, where he studied Engineering Physics at KTH and played hockey with Stockholm’s largest sports club, AIK.

“KTH has become much more international and has grown tremendously in the research side since then,” he says.

Gudmundson moved to Switzerland immediately after earning his engineering degree, and worked at Brown Boveri, where at the same time he did his PhD in solid mechanics. He defended his thesis at KTH and eventually became managing director of a research institute in Piteå.

Peter Gudmundson with US President Barack Obama and KTH researchers. (Photo: Peter Larsson)

“It was incredibly exciting to build a lab from scratch,” he says.

In 1993 he returned to KTH to lead the work of the Department of Solid Mechanics. As president, he has not completely let go of his old subject, but has jumped in and taught a few times.

“It's always exciting to meet students.”

The responsibility as leader of an organisation such as KTH, which has the scale of a large company, involves constant prioritisation. When it comes to matters at the heart of KTH operations, he has a hard time choosing.

“Wow. There are many things that are important: Gender equality. More graduates. Producing more cutting-edge researchers to achieve the highest possible quality in our research.”

He continues. Collaboration with the surrounding community is also something that he is passionate about.

“It is absolutely crucial,” Gudmundson says. “We must interact with the community and industry. There are great opportunities for exciting cross-border exchanges between academia and industry. Our strategic partnerships have already made an impression.”

Further internationalisation is another important issue for KTH and Gudmundson. When US President Barack Obama visited the university campus in September 2013 to look at research in renewable energy, KTH's place in the world became most evident.

“It was fun,” Gudmundson says. “Really exciting that he came to KTH. Many people are curious about what he was like.  Nice and soft-spoken, I would say.

What are you most pleased with concerning the development of KTH so far?

“Regardless of my role in it all, that KTH has climbed on a number of rankings. The interest in our programs has increased, we have new research funding, and we work well with collaboration.”

Universities in Sweden have become increasingly self-governing since the 1980s, and there is discussion about the Swedish government's proposal to push them into the foundation structure. What do you say about that?

 “Freedom is good, but it has to be realistic to be able to run the business within the defined limits. The proposal is being investigated further. We await the outcome.”

Jill Klackenberg

Follow Peter Gudmundson on twitter @ petergudmundson or read his weekly blog 

Snapshot: Peter Gudmundson

Name: Perols Lars Peter Gudmundson

Age: 58 years

Currently: President of KTH Royal Institute of Technology, second term. Elected in 2007 and reinstated for three years in 2013.

Lives: Vaxholm.

Career highlights: Master of Science at KTH in engineering physics in 1979, a PhD in Solid Mechanics 1982. Worked as a researcher at Brown Boveri of Switzerland. He was a consultant in Vaxholm and opened and led a research laboratory for composite materials in Piteå. Professor and Head of the Department of Solid Mechanics, KTH.

Family: Wife Lena, who is a physiotherapist. Three children: Karll, 19, Malin, 17, and Kajsa, 13. Malin goes in dad's footsteps and play hockey in the AIK.

Any role models: “No, I have probably none that I can think of, directly.”

How do you spend your spare time? “With my family, watching sports and trying to play sports myself: golf, skiing, and I run sometimes, but should do that more.”

What makes you happy: “When I get to meet amazing researchers and teachers. And when the children are well and happy.”

What makes you unhappy?  “Undeserved criticism and being held accountable for things I have been unable to influence. It's always sad when people are mistreated.”

Dream for humanity: “I can only hope that the poorest countries should be lifted to a good standard of living and that war will end. It is perhaps not so original, but equally important for that.”

What do you want your legacy to be: “That I leave behind a well-managed KTH that advances further in the international arena.

Most proud of:  “My children.”

The President's views

On sustainability:  “It’s important for KTH, where sustainability should not only will permeate research and education but the whole school, every day. We must create a society where you do not just consume - it's something that everyone should agree on.”

About Equality:  “An equal opportunity institution of higher education is very important - and vital to the quality of both research and education. We have much work left to do here, even if it goes in the right direction. A good team needs diversity.”

About KTH campus:  “I hope it will become a more vibrant environment around the clock, with student housing being built right now. There will also be an excellent thoroughfare of knowledge, education and research connecting KTH, Karolinska Institutet and Stockholm University, which places the whole region on the global research community map.”

About KTH in 10 years:  “I'm very optimistic. We have become even more international. The engineering profession has been broadened from from traditional problem-solving to increased interdisciplinarity and global cooperation on crucial matters such as climate change, urbanisation, and the increasing lifespan of people all over the world.