On leadership in water management

Social science research has clearly shown that problems of collective action in natural resource and water management situations more easily come about when there is a large amount of social capital, which builds the trust necessary for contingent behaviours to develop, and which eases the coming together of different stakeholders for development of joint solutions. Such preconditions does not always exist, they must be created, and the ones to initiate such a process are the formal or informal leaders. That is, although we might know what is needed to be successful, in practice it is a challenge that has to be concurred in each unique situation.

 A concept that is becoming increasingly widespread in natural resource and water management context is social learning. It presupposes that certain basic social processes take place or are made conscious. 

To initiate and lead a social learning process involves the ability to, through stakeholder interaction, construct shared knowledge, to agree to act, and to monitor effects of acting upon that knowledge. Furthermore, social learning involves both the knowledge for the adaptive management of the bio-physical environment, as well as the knowledge needed for the participatory management of social processes. It takes place in the interface between people and their environment.

In practice leadership in water management involves the ability to operate in (inter)national, regional and local policy context, on different geographical scales, involving a broad range of stakeholders, and being able to use relevant methods and tools to enable communication, learning and action. In order to create some structure in these challenging tasks at least three distinct aspects of leadership can be applied; local and regional leadership vs. collaborative leadership. In addition, it is important to clarify the specific role of leaders as process facilitators, and that the participatory toolbox will be used differently depending on what aspect of leadership we talk about (figure 1). These dimensions will be elaborated below.

Figure 1. There are different aspects of leadership at play in water driven rural development, covering more administrative functions to the practical use of different participatory tools.

Local and regional leadership

Most decision-making processes in natural resource management starts with a perceived problem, for instance decreasing water quality, loss of biodiversity or risk for flooding. These situations are often characterised by high complexity. In such a situation, someone must take the initiative to change the negative development. This might be the local or regional leader.

A local and regional leader can belong to different organisations. It could be an authority, a municipality, a NGO, any other association or a private firm such as an advisory organisation. What is important is that the leader has the legitimacy and the capacity to lead the work initially. This is one reason for that many of these processes are initiated by public organisations, that is, due to resource availability.

Leaders such as community leaders, agency field staff, engaged citizens, landowners, and elected officials can all play a leadership role in integrated water management processes and contribute to progress. Initially there is often a lack of resources, political support, or agency direction. An important task for such leaders is to mobilize enough resources making collaborative, innovative and action-oriented work possible.

Such leaders are change agents, whom foster trust and motivate stakeholder to get involved and support the work. They display such roles as “cheerleader-energizer, diplomat, process facilitator, leader, convenor, catalyst, and promoter” (Wondolleck & Yaffee, 2000, p. 178). 

It is important to move beyond a leadership characterised by control and command. At the same time, it is not only about making stakeholders involved and learn together. Such initiatives might be stimulating to engage in, but seldom lead to real change. Local and regional leadership in integrated water management involves a skill to balance between structural issues, such as legal frameworks, policy contexts and institutions, and process issues, such as enabling communication, learning and communication. Initially a core skill is that of the administrator. Local and regional leadership always involves a pre-phase where one has to argue for a will to work in new ways, for instance towards policy makers or existing and often traditional institutions. This can take a long time, but is still an important task. It is about establishing good enough preconditions for the future and more collaborative work.

Administrative leadership is present in most natural resource management situations, and is also known as bureaucratic leadership. This is a leadership style often associated with public organizations. Administrative leaders emphasize measurable outcomes and effectiveness, value decisions guided by data, and establish and support formal rules for work tasks and for decision procedures, similar to project management. The importance of administrative leadership in natural resource management should not be underestimated, while this might be the main role of many local or regional leaders. Making sure that organisational routines function, and that one follow existing rules. This also implies that someone else might take the more process and learning oriented role when collaboration start.

It is clear that the complexity of water management issues makes control and command leadership obsolete and administrative leadership important, but not enough. Campbell (1995) writes: ”Getting serious about sustainability means grappling with large and unfamiliar scales in space and time; technical uncertainties and risk; a multiplicity of stakeholders with diverse values and interests; an intricate interdependency of economic, social, and environmental issues; and situations in which decisions are often urgent and stakes high. One has only to attempt to answer these simple questions – Sustain what? Over what area? For how long? For the benefit of whom? Measured by what criteria? – to appreciate that sustainability can never be precisely defined” (p. 125). These are all open questions, where the answers will differ from case to case. To make progress in such situations participatory and integrated approaches to water management also demand collaborative leadership and process facilitation.

Collaborative leadership

As quickly as other people meet and interact social processes starts. As a leader, you have to take care of people and their interaction, as much as the subject issues in focus. Managing people involves specific competencies, adding to the administrative and strategic competencies described earlier. In processes where different stakeholders are to be involved and to manage a shared problem, one has to build on their experiences and knowledge as much as external inputs. By doing so you become an intermediary between external context and internal processes. Leadership is, in such situations, essentially about communication, to enable learning, and to coordinate joint actions. It is essential about implementing an interactive and relational approach to natural resource management. The core is collaboration and cooperation that will be elaborated in more detail below.

The role of collaborative leadership is to engage others by designing constructive processes for working together, convene appropriate stakeholders, and facilitate and sustain their interaction. Already in 1994 Chrislip and Larson clarified that collaborative leadership is a “different kind of leadership” through which leaders: “promote and safeguard the collaborative process rather than take unilateral, decisive action. The power of position is of little help in this world of peers, nor are the traditional hierarchical, political, and confrontational models of leadership. Those who lead collaborative efforts – transforming, facilitative, “servant” leaders — rely on both a new vision of leadership and new skills and behaviors to help communities and organizations realize their visions, solve problems, and get results.” (p. 127)

Collaboration emphasises the importance of social learning. The assumption is that stakeholders are intelligent, responsible agents who are willing to act in the collective interest. A precondition is they feel trust in the work approach as well as in the leaders guiding the work. In addition, stakeholders must form relevant platforms for decision-making and action. This is very much about working on, what the stakeholders as well as the issues at hand would label as “the right scale” and “the relevant problem”. Some sustainability problems might be solved on watershed level, other needs to be managed across landscapes. Similarly, stakeholder involvement is often related to scale, where commitment, sense of self in place (identity), and capacity to act, all is related to geographical and cultural scale. The possibility for communication, social learning and concerted action among stakeholders must be created at the right scale. Finally, the interactive approach must be able to impact policy. It is based on communicative reasoning and rationality. That is, the way we communicate will define what learning that takes place and thus how innovative and feasible the outcomes will be. Such leadership approach is essentially collaborative. 

According to Stanford Social Innovation Review (Smith & Becker, 2018), nine sets of skills are central to collaborative leadership. These skills are grouped in three broad areas: a) building teams, b) solving problems, and c) achieving impact (figure 2). Such skills become more important the more complex processes we are to manage.

Figure 2. Nine set of skills that are critical for cross sector leaders to shape collaborations and drive impact (Smith & Becker, 2018)

Establishing strong teams start already when making first contact with core stakeholder, and involves issues of trust building and from the very beginning to foster a culture of collaborative learning. Solving problems rely on the group’s ability to take a systems approach, make use of best available knowledge, and take consequences of potential actions into account. Achieving impact is dependent on values, motivations and learning, but also timing, identifying and using the leverage points that emerge along the way.

Process facilitation

 If establishing new platforms for communication, learning and joint action is the core of collaborative leadership, process facilitation is about designing and leading the concrete activities and work on these platforms and together with stakeholders. To take the role as a process facilitator means managing people, situations, and issues in real time situations. You have to act, you have to take risks, and you have to live with the consequences of each action made. Of course, you are not alone, but you are the one responsible for making good ambitions materialised in people’s interaction.

The process facilitator is pedagogically responsible in collaborative processes. This means that the facilitator is the one who will propose and implement designs, methods and tools that enable participation and lead to desirable and feasible results. The responsibility for implementing the outputs or being responsible for specific subject knowledge is shared among participants, but being able to answer the question “why do we do what we do and set up this activity in this way?” lies always by the process facilitator.

The process facilitator is also responsible for the workflow. As part of this, the facilitator must be able to:

Clearly, process facilitation is not only about making use of participatory tools in a correct and constructive way. Facilitation takes place when designing a process or an activity, it takes place when making people feel heard, respected and having real influence, and it takes place when critically reflecting upon how things can be done differently, etc. 

So far, local and regional leadership has been described as the role when creating an acceptance within existing policy context for new ways of working. Collaborative leadership is very much about organising and involving stakeholders in a joint learning and development process. Process facilitation is the skills to manage people and their interaction in many different situations. The three roles are closely linked and builds on the same premises, but it is partly different competencies. That is, different individuals, whom complement each other, might take the different roles. 

The participatory toolbox and leadership

Social and communicative competence, as well as access to and the skills to make use of participatory tools, are part of what characterise a good facilitator. Figure 3 illustrates that the way you facilitate processes is grounded in your personality and sociality, but it is made explicit through your communicative competence. The use of pedagogical tools is something you can learn. Nonetheless, the practical use of these tools still has to be reflected in who you are. People notice quite quickly when you are not comfortable with what you do…

Figure 3. Applying the participatory toolbox will always be grounded in your communicative competence as well as your personality. As a process facilitator you have to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses.

Participation is always quite fluid. People will come and go voluntarily; take part in one phase of the work and not another and the process facilitator has to accept this fact (to a certain degree of course). It is a question of balancing an open process with a need to achieve tangible outcomes in due time. Such aspects emphasise the need to constantly elaborate questions like ‘why do we do this?’ and ‘where are we now in the process?’. As argued, such issues have to be raised by the facilitator. For many stakeholders, not least farmers and land managers, the most meaningful interaction is when action is taken, not when sitting down discussing or problematising aspects back and forth. Instead of long meetings, they maintain that it is ‘when you silently sweat side by side’ that the most meaningful interaction occur. Practitioners often have a healthy scepticism towards new ideas being perceived as imposed on them. They have to prioritise their time and focus of attention, and the interaction has to be meaningful. Although this is a shared responsibility for the group, the facilitator has a specific role to deliberate these issues. These are some reasons for why participation has to be understood as so much more than using a toolbox. It is a constant balancing act between what is desirable and feasible, which in turn demand integrity, strong values and professional leadership.

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