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Shared leadership needed for water industry’s ‘wicked problems’

Solving ‘wicked problems’ in the water industry requires a collaborative approach to leadership, says International WaterCentre (IWC) Leadership Specialist André Taylor.

Speaking ahead of his keynote address at the Australian Water Association’s South Australian State Conference, Dr Taylor said the industry needs a diverse range of leaders to find solutions to complex issues such as finding more sustainable ways of managing water resources.

“We’ve got some significant challenges, so not only do we need to find technical solutions, but we’ve got to have people in our industry who are good at driving change. If we’re good at building shared leadership, it gives us much greater capacity to tackle these ‘wicked’ or complex challenges,” Dr Taylor said.

“If you look at positive case studies about driving change in the water sector, you’ll see a network of people working together. It’s not just a CEO of a water utility or a government minister – it’s a group of people playing different leadership roles.”

While people traditionally think of leadership as coming from the top down, Dr Taylor said every water industry professional has the potential to be an effective leader – the key is finding a role that suits their personality, mindset, values and career aspirations, and then learning how to play this role well.

“I want to encourage people to see leadership not as a position of authority but as process of influence that typically involves different people playing different roles. When you make that mindset shift all of a sudden you realise there’s a role for you,” he said.

These roles can range from thought leaders shaping the industry through their technical expertise to ‘champion’ leaders promoting innovation, or executives driving change through the creation of supportive organisational cultures.

“The very best water utility CEOs are creating cultures in their organisations that enable people to question the status quo, speak up, collaborate, take some risks, come up with good ideas and run with them,” Dr Taylor said.

“Organisations that foster coordinated forms of distributed leadership like this are the ones doing a better job of driving change, innovating and dealing with complex challenges.”

While Dr Taylor believes leadership can be taught – he runs a range of leadership programs through the IWC, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Monash University – and there are many skills leaders need to perform in different roles, he said there are three key skills successful leaders must develop to a high level: communication, networking and influence.

“People often ask how much of leadership ability is innate versus learnt. The answer is, it’s a bit of both … but all the skills we need to be a good leader we can consciously develop.

“I don’t want to dismiss the importance of personality, because it does make a difference, but the majority of leadership skills can be learnt.”

Dr Taylor works with leaders from different industry sectors to develop their skills and confidence to lead themselves, exert influence and drive positive change. Although leadership development is a priority in many industries, he believes there are unique challenges and opportunities within the water sector.

He said the relatively conservative nature of the water sector can create barriers to change, which can make some leadership activities harder.

“The water industry was borne out of the need to provide safe water services to people, so it makes sense we’re pretty conservative. This has served us well for many years, but it also creates inertia.”

Dr Taylor also said the people of the water industry are its biggest asset.

“The vast majority of people who work in the water sector are very passionate about their industry. They’re intrinsically motivated to serve the community and the environment – that’s a big asset to us because so much of leadership requires intrinsic motivation. It’s also why I enjoy working with water leaders so much.

“We can take that motivation to be positive change agents and provide these people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to make a difference.”

André Taylor will be presenting at the upcoming 2018 South Australian State Conference on leadership in water. To learn more and to register, click here.

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