Six steps to grow as a water leader

Six steps to grow as a water leader

In mid-February the International WaterCentre (IWC) had the pleasure of facilitating a week-long face-to-face intensive with 28 participants in the seventh round of the IWC Water Leadership Program. During the intensive, participants were encouraged to take six steps to accelerate their development as emerging water leaders.

Below are the six steps to grow as a water leader as outlined during the Water Leadership Program intensive held in Brisbane.

1 – Adopt a mindset characterised by being ‘in learning mode’ and have a ‘leader identity’

Seeing oneself as an emerging leader helps to accelerate the process of developmental growth. Having a learning mindset enables experimentation and reflection. Researchers have recently found that “leaders who are in learning mode develop stronger leadership skills than their peers” (Keating et al., 2017, p. 2).

2 – Set challenging goals and undertake challenging leadership activities

Developing leaders need to be outside their comfort zone and trying new approaches. This principle is summarised by Professor Herminia Ibarra (2015, p. 59), who stated: “The only way we grow as leaders is by stretching the limits of who we are – doing new things that make us uncomfortable but that teach us through direct experience who we want to become. Such growth doesn’t require a radical personality makeover. Small changes – in the way we carry ourselves, the way we communicate, the way we interact – often make a world of difference in how effectively we lead.”

3 – Deliberately experiment with new approaches to leadership

Developing leaders need to experiment with new leadership strategies, styles and tools following structured learning. This requires what Ibarra (2015) calls a ‘playful mindset’, where the developing leader is deliberately experimenting with new approaches. Ibarra argues that “when we adopt a playful attitude, we’re more open to possibilities” (p. 58).

4 – Frequently reflect on experiences

We don’t learn from experience – we learn from reflecting on experience. Developing leaders need to find methods to frequently reflect on what is working, what is not, what is being learnt, and how they can improve in future. Whilst there are many methods of reflecting, such as journaling, reflective discussions with mentors, and conducting ‘after action reviews’, it’s important for each leader to find methods that suit them and are sustainable. Again, this requires some experimentation.

5 – Get feedback from colleagues as new approaches to leadership are trialled

As developing leaders practice new approaches to leadership they need to be getting feedback from trusted colleagues so they can fine-tune their approach and build confidence. Research by Dr Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan (2004, p. 4) investigated the significance of different methods of leadership development to improved performance. The principal conclusion of this work was that “Time and again, one variable emerged as central to the achievement of positive long-term change: the participants’ ongoing interaction and follow-up with colleagues. Leaders who discussed their own improvement priorities with their co-works, and then regularly followed up with these co-workers, showed striking improvement. Leaders who did not have ongoing dialogue with colleagues showed improvement that barely exceeded random chance.”

6 – Get help from people with more experience

Changing our behaviour is not easy. Most developing leaders require support from others as they implement new leadership behaviours and strategies. In the IWC Water Leadership Program, support mechanisms typically include: 1 to 1 coaching by specialist leadership coaches who understand the water sector; discussions with local mentors who understand the local work environment; group mentors who participate in face-to-face training; supervisors (who are briefed on how they can be of most help during the program); and other program participants/alumni.


Dr André Taylor

IWC Leadership Specialist

Sources and further reading
Day, D. (2000). Leadership development: A review in context. The Leadership Quarterly, 11(4), 581- 613.

Day, D., Harrison, M., & Halpin, S. (2009). An integrative approach to leader development. New York: Taylor and Francis Group.

Goldsmith, M., & Morgan, H. (2004). Leadership is a contact sport: The ‘follow-up factor’ in management development. Strategy + Business, 36, Autumn 2004, 1–12.

Ibarra, H. (2015). The authenticity paradox. Harvard Business Review, January-February, 52–59.

Keating, L., Heslin, P., & Ashford, S. (2017). Good leaders are good learners. Harvard Business Review article, 10 August 2017, (26 February 2018).

Kouzes. J, & Posner, B. (2016). Learning leadership. San Francisco, California: Wiley.

McCauley, C., & Van Velsor, E. (Eds.) (2004). The Centre for Creative Leadership handbook of leadership development.  Second edition.  San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

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