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Does water need more leaders and fewer experts?

The Great Debate, presented by the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust, was a classic stand-off between two teams: one in favour and one against, each with their fair share of arguments and rebuttals, all in response to a single question – does the water industry require more experts and fewer leaders, or vice versa?

Participants in the Ozwater'22 debate, who shall remain unidentified according to the Chatham House Rule, contemplated the role of effective leadership and expert knowledge and how we can leverage the diverse strengths of the sector.

“We need to inspire people,” came one argument in favour of more leaders. “We need to get millions of people to band together to get stuff done and fix problems, instead of burying our heads in the sand.” Leaders, they said, were essential to this purpose.

“Technical leaders are vital,” said another debate participant. “We’re not saying we don’t need hydrologists, hydrogeologists or astrophysicists. [But] we need people leaders to bring their work to life.”

The response came back from the team against: “All leaders need a vision. They need to be focused, prioritise and communicate. But beware of vision without expertise.”

They provided an example of a technical expert Queenslanders relied upon heavily during the pandemic: the state’s former Chief Health Officer and current Governor Jeannette Young, who they said provided much-needed technical guidance when other leaders in Australia were lacking.

“Technical experts are predictable, people leaders are not.”

The panel’s sole Indigenous participant rounded off proceedings by questioning the absence of Indigenous leaders in many discussions affecting the land and water systems.

“Look at the way Western leadership has managed this country and led us to where we are today, trying to turn a dry land into an English landscape,” they said.

“Leaders and technicians have access to the oldest living culture on the planet in this country – we have the opportunity to access that.”

Moderator Dr Bek Christensen, Programs Director at the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust, fielded questions from audience members to broaden the perspectives on offer.

Ultimately, neither team was named the overall winner, with Dr Christensen deeming both sides as having presented a worthy pitch for more leaders and more experts respectively.

The golden answer? “You need both,” concluded one debater.

Christensen provided a succinct summary of the dual arguments: “We need technical expertise and we need [leaders]. We need people to unite other people and motivate them towards a vision.

“Knowledge comes in many forms, but not all voices are currently heard and included fairly in building our future.”

With many spirited arguments from participants and references to the likes of Darth Vader, Greta Thunberg and Ronald Reagan, the debate provided a touch of levity after a day of thought-provoking sessions.

But the session also prompted open and ongoing conversations around the nature of leadership and technical expertise among those who work in water, and the way those factions intersect and intertwine.

It became clear how, regardless of one’s stance on this particular issue being debated, drawing together a range of perspectives and ideas is a boon to the industry.

This session is available as part of Ozwater'22's On-Demand online offering. Learn more here.