Daring Leadership and the challenge of Dutch water governance

By Peter Scholten: Driven by the necessity of adapting to climate change, water governance in the Netherlands is more and more leaning towards an approach in which many of the governance actions are aimed at creating more space for water dynamics. In the Netherlands, where over sixteen million inhabitants lay their diverse claims on one of Europe’s smallest countries, half of which is situated below sea level, more space for water implies a combining of water safety and flood management with many other societal functions that compete for the same space. This implies a transformation of the challenge of water governance from a problem of flood protection to a multidimensional governance issue that attempts to combine spatial management, economic functionality, ecological values and infrastructural problems and that involves many actors with different opinions and interests. Adapting to climate change is only one of many dimensions that need to be anchored in policy. Within this increasingly complex context, we need innovative and multi-dimensional solutions that can combine the various stakes and stakeholders and simultaneously provide ample answers to the issue of climate adaptation.

From a governance perspective, an important challenge lies not just in merely designing such innovative strategies, but also in the connecting of such innovative ideas to the existing context of policy making. In my dissertation I argue that this challenge implies a key role for political leaders who hold a pivotal position to link an innovative proposal to the existing complexities of the governmental context in which democratic obligations and the representation of existing routines that might be challenged by these innovations play a role. These characteristics imply that for political leadership, i.e. elected officials, the act of coupling an innovative proposal to the existing context of policy-making involves many uncertainties and oftentimes requires a daring leadership style in which a bet on eventual public support for decisions is taken.

In my dissertation I have elaborated the concept of Daring Leadership and, based on empirical study, generated insights on its manifestations, its composing elements and how it comes about in everyday policymaking. Empirical studies in the thesis concern the Volkerak Zoommeer,in which radical changes in management strategies of an artificial fresh water basin are being proposed and the WaalWeelde initiative which is concerned with innovative proposals for flood plain management in the east of the Netherlands.

Based on the case studies and existing literature on Transactional and Transformational leadership a typology of leadership is developed, in which Daring Leadership is positioned within the theoretical bandwidth of Transactional and Transformational leadership. Within this so-called TDT typology, I formulated Daring leadership as a distinct ideal-type, which is specifically suited to address issues of leadership in the inter-organizational context of public management and Dutch water governance. As such, it aims to fill a void in the existing literature that focuses mainly on the intra-organizational aspects of leadership.  The TDT typology can be regarded as a descriptive and analytical tool specifically applicable for the analysis of political leadership.

Daring leadership is formulated as an ideal type of leadership, specifically directed to the challenges of public, i.e. inter-organizational, leadership tasks. These tasks revolve around striking a balance between general, long-term interests for society as a whole and the various more specific and often short-term interests of individual stakeholders. It is about creating connections between stakes and stakeholders and crosscutting levels and domains.

Without losing focus on the issue at hand Daring Leadership aims to create new connections and to bargain with other parties, thereby connecting stakeholders, levels and layers with each other and ultimately with the issue. Such a leadership is not without risk, however, and throughout the process it remains unclear whether public and political support can ultimately be expected.

Daring leadership considers the existence of ultimate support as uncertain and it therefore encompasses a deliberate betting on support. The bet is accompanied by an active involvement in the process of exchanging viewpoints with other stakeholders. The daring leader attempts to merge views and incorporate different interests into a policy trajectory that still aims for the goals that were set in the initial proposal. As such, a daring style actively engages the complexities of the policy process instead of attempting to reduce complexity. Such complexity-reducing behavior can be observed in the strong focus on the rules and regulations of the process as can be found in Transactional leadership styles or, in case of Transformational leadership, attempts to reduce complexity by focusing solely on the content and the pushing of the preferred proposal, regardless of the specific circumstances.

The TDT-typology and the concept of daring leadership provide an actor-oriented contribution to the theoretical debate on the mutual influences of individuals and the structures in which they operate. Without dismissing the importance of institutional context this research reveals a considerable space for the free, un-institutionalized actor, driven by personal ambition, preferences and capacities. If the context does indeed provide opportunities and constraints it is still the individual who, to a certain extent, decides how to make use of these and what to do.

The research provided indications that personal characteristics can be regarded as a main influential factor on the shaping of leadership behavior in the practice of public decision-making processes. More specifically it could be hypothesized that personal ambition is an important driver that co-determines the specific performance of leadership.

In many cases, project planning and development with regard to spatial planning and water management has tended to ignore the issue of political leadership in both practice and theory. One major recommendation of this study would be to incorporate the issue of leadership into the design and the practice of such projects, in order to achieve the successful connection of a proposal to the existing policy-making context. New research challenges lie in the exploration of the relations between other phases of the policy process and the exercise of leadership. In addition, the relationships between types of leadership and types of problems are potential research topics that have yet to be explored. One recommendation of this study would be to conduct further work to ground and adapt the TDT typology and the concept of daring leadership in new research, focusing on cases of political leadership in other policy areas and on different political levels, concerned with connecting innovative proposals to an existing context of policy making.

Finally, a challenging avenue for exploration could involve employing the TDT typology and other findings of this thesis in a broad re-thinking of paradigmatic patterns of the ‘agency versus structure’ choices in policy science. How do leadership and institutions play out in processes of policy change? Are institutions eventually the dominant force? But also, is that which forms institutions in the realm of public policy making not always been conceptualized, set in motion, and been kept alive, by leaders with vision and daring?

Permanent link to this article: https://www.watergovernance.eu/uncategorized/daring-leadership-and-the-challenge-of-dutch-water-governance/

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