Water Leadership – the H2Otalent doctrine

The global water industry is going through a transition. A transition from  an industry focused on the incremental improvement of a century-old water management paradigm, to an adaptive industry that can manage the rapid and dramatic changes occuring  in climate, technology and society.

Incremental improvement and rapid adaption require very different leadership approaches, and this has created  a leadership deficit throughout the industry.

This is complicated by the fact that water management is one of the most challenging wicked problems we face. It has more stakeholders than any other industry, making for a highly complex socio-enviro-political environment. It intersects pretty much every human endeavour, meaning to optimise water management at a society/ecology-wide level is a task of extreme complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty.

Leadership is this kind of environment is really as hard as it gets.

In this post I am putting forward a universal model for leadership in the water sector. This is based on H2Otalent’s experience recruiting across the sector, as well as the latest thought on leadership in complex systems. I would love to get readers views on this set of leadership qualities/strategies as this is just one step of an iterative process.

Leaders need not be managers, and leadership can be displayed at all levels of organizations, as well as outside organizational structures. Leadership is also much more about what you do than who you are.

1. Self-Aware
Having a good understanding of ones self is absolutely the most critical leadership skill. If you don’t know your own strengths and weaknesses, and your own biases and tendencies, you will never be able to lead effectively because you will not be able to manage yourself. Self-awareness naturally leads to an understanding of others.

2. Internal locus of control

Individuals with an internal locus of control fundamentally believe that they can influence outcomes (rather than being the victims of circumstance), and are willing to take responsibility for outcomes.

3. Visionary
In a changing environment leaders must drive for change, and that requires clarity, a big-picture perspective, and a vision of what can be.

4. Authentic
People will follow you if they believe what you believe. Leaders must take a position and be true to their values

5. Enabling
Leaders must empower others to act. You can achieve nothing on your own. This requires giving authority and control to others, not just delegating tasks.

6. Emergent
While leaders must provide vision and values, in complex environments it is better to allow solutions and tactics to emerge in a bottom-up way rather than take a hierarchical directive approach. In complex environments undergoing rapid change, there is no way that one person can always know the right course of action. It is the leaders responsibility to create an environment where this is possible, and let go of certainty over outcomes.

7. Experimenting

Complex system environments are non-deterministic, so planning and forecasting are often doomed to fail. The best way to test ideas is by trying them, and trying lots of them.  Leaders must provide an environment where early stage failure is encouraged, so that major failures can be avoided.

8. Disruptive

Continuous adaption to a changing environment is much more desirable than the step-change phenomenon that tends to occur in natural systems when a system is pushed beyond its level of resilience by external change and collapses. Leaders need to be able to continue disrupt the status quo to provide room for change


Powerful leaders have the ability to consider a choice of two or more undesirable alternatives, reject both and find a third previously non-existent path which combines the positives of both.

Readers, tell me why I am wrong and where I am right on this list of key leadership qualities/approaches. Different parts of the industry will have radically different perspectives, so I am keen to hear them.

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