Water Leadership

Leaders in the water sector need to consider the social, environmental and economic impacts of water-related decisions by integrating community, scientific, engineering, economic, legal, health and political perspectives.

What is water leadership?

We use a contemporary definition of leadership, drawing from Ernst and Chrobot-Mason (2011) and Drath et al. (2008), which defines leadership as a process of influence that accomplishes three outcomes:

  • direction: a shared understanding of common goals and strategy (e.g. a shared vision for a new water management project or team)
  • alignment: the joint coordination of resources and activities (e.g. aligning people, projects, funding and research within a team to deliver a shared vision)
  • commitment: a commitment to collective success (e.g. motivating and inspiring others to achieve mutual interests).

This is sometimes referred to as the DAC Framework.

We also need to consider the context that the leader operates in, as well as the interplay of organisational, social, economic, regulatory and environmental factors on the leader’s ability to effectively employ their leadership attributes. Water leadership can be defined as the ability to influence and manage change in the complex, cross-boundary and multi-stakeholder context of the water sector.

Broadly, we define a leader as someone who engages in leadership.

Why is ‘water’ leadership different?

The leadership skills required to lead effectively in the water sector are not unique. Nonetheless, research into the attributes of effective water leaders helps to identify the key competencies that could be enhanced to gain the greatest impact, given the unique context of the water sector.

The world is increasingly water-limited and water challenges are becoming increasingly complex. Population growth and the effects of climate change are globally forcing the need for a radically rethink in the way essential services – water, wastewater, food and energy – are managed and delivered. In this context, the ability to collaborate with professionals and community members with different philosophical beliefs and perspectives, and being able to translate the different interests, objective and concerns across stakeholder groups requires clear understanding of exactly which leadership competencies are most effective.

The T-shaped water leader

One way of characterising the set of skills possessed by professionals who provide effective ways of solving complex, multi-faceted problems and managing change by working deliberately across the boundaries of functional or organisational units, is the T-shaped leader.

As opposed to generalists, T-shaped leaders possess deep disciplinary or functional knowledge, and develop a broad knowledge of other disciplines, organisational functions and the institutions in which they operate, so they can meaningfully co-construct and resolve wicked problems. This can be imagined as the cross bar on the letter ‘T’.

For the water sector, the shape of the ‘T’ cross-bar will involve the integration of knowledge from the social sciences, the natural sciences, infrastructure and technology, ethics, decision-making process, and from practice, to provide core technical and management competencies. Professionals this degree of broad knowledge will be able to form judgements about policy, planning or management action on the basis of both evidence and values.

All water leaders are not the same

While a T-shaped leader can be highly effective in solving problems and managing change, individuals vary in the ways they influence the efforts of others. Six leadership roles are commonly seen in the water sector and often feature in successful case studies of positive change, in both developed and developing countries. These are the:

  • champion leader
  • enabling leader
  • cross-boundary team leader
  • thought leader
  • strategic leader
  • trusted advisor roles.

An individual’s expression of one or more of these six roles will be dependent on their personal values and interests, personality and career stage, as well as their situation and environmental conditions. Being able to articulate which role the leader most closely identifies with helps shape their ongoing development.

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