Water leaders: From research to action

Contribution by Andre Taylor, Leadership specialist, International WaterCentre
In recent years, researchers have investigated the role of different types of water leader in driving processes of change. For example, Brown and Clarke1 identified the attributes of ‘champions’ who worked in a cross-sectoral network to collectively promote more sustainable forms of stormwater management in Melbourne. Taylor2 extended this work to identify attributes of effective project and executive level ‘champions’ who advanced sustainable forms of water management in Australian water agencies, the nature of champion-proven leadership processes, and the contextual factors that enabled them to emerge as leaders and successfully drive change. Similarly, Meijerink and Huitema3 highlighted the strategies commonly used by ‘policy entrepreneurs’ to initiate new approaches to water management, based on 16 international case studies.

Such research findings are now being used to build customised leadership development programs for water leaders. The primary rationale for such programs is that to address complex / wicked problems and drive more integrated and sustainable forms of water management, the water sector needs practitioners with a range of technical, management and leadership skills. Whilst conventional training programs and university courses have focused on the technical and management skills, there have been limited opportunities for non-executive water leaders to learn the strategies used by effective water leaders to drive change and to participate in intensive developmental activities.

An example of such a program is the International WaterCentre’s new Water Leadership Program . This nine-month program is customised for water leaders at the project to middle management level who want to be more effective at exercising influence, driving change, and advancing more integrated forms of water management. This program has recently reviewed the literature and conducted additional research to identify three key, non-executive water leadership roles.  Knowledge of the leadership behaviours and strategies associated with these roles forms a significant part of the program’s content.

The first of these three leadership roles is the ‘project champion’. Emergent leaders in this role initiate and strongly drive processes of change, as well as integrated water management projects and policies. They are highly motivated, stand out early in processes of change and excel at exerting influence.

The second of these roles is the ‘enabling leader’. They enable others to find solutions to complex challenges involving integrated water management. They create environments where people (e.g. often less senior people) from across organisational boundaries can interact, collaborate, experiment, take risks and learn together.

The third role is the ‘project / team leader’. They are formally responsible for delivering outcomes from teams working on integrated water management projects. Their role includes building, managing and monitoring the performance of teams. For major projects, they commonly lead challenging, cross-boundary, multi-disciplinary teams.


1. Brown, R., & Clarke, J. (2007). Transition to water sensitive urban design: The story of Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne, Victoria: Facility for Advancing Water Biofiltration and National Urban Water Governance Program, Monash University.

2. Taylor, A. (2010). Sustainable urban water management: The champion phenomenon. PhD Thesis. Melbourne, Victoria: National Urban Water Governance Program, Monash University.

3. Meijerink, S., & Huitema, D. (2010). Policy entrepreneurs and change strategies: Lessons from sixteen case studies of water transitions around the globe. Ecology and Society, 15(2), 1-21.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.watergovernance.eu/science-and-policy/water-leaders-from-research-to-action/

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