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Are you a water manager or leader?

Dr André Taylor shares with us his thoughts on the difference between management and leadership, and why we need both as water practitioners to deliver a more sustainable water future.
Are you a water manager or leader?

Are you a water manager or leader?

When I was 18 years old I was lucky enough to find myself in a small lecture theatre in an undergraduate science class at the University of Tasmania. In those days, the lecturers carried a rack of 35mm slides into the room, and there were no computers in the building. I was ‘lucky’ because I had stumbled upon a transformational educator - a distinguished, grey haired Professor called Max who had the ability to ask powerful questions. These questions would work their magic on me for days or weeks and help me to develop a deep understanding of the topics we were exploring.

Max would have asked a question like “Are you a water manager or leader?”… At first this question may seem straightforward and superficial, but dig a little deeper and there’s plenty of food for thought. Let’s unpack this question by looking at five aspects.

  1. What is management? Professor John Kotter from Harvard argues that management involves planning, budgeting, organising and staffing. It’s what we do when we’re trying to do the same things more efficiently.  At the International Water Centre (IWC), we have the pleasure of coordinating the delivery of our nine-month IWC Water Leadership Program each year. This organisational work is mostly ‘management’.
  2. What is leadership? Leadership is a verb (a ‘doing word’) not a noun (e.g. a position). The Centre of Creative Leadership's ‘DAC model’ of leadership describes it as a process of influence that delivers direction (i.e. a shared vision of where we are going), alignment (i.e. all of our resources are working in a coordinated manner) and commitment (i.e. everyone in our team is motivated). When we first established the IWC Water Leadership Program in 2011, we had to engage in leadership. It was a process of influence that involved important contributions from many people, not just someone in authority - we call this ‘distributed’ or ‘shared’ leadership.
  3. Is there a clear distinction between leadership and management? I don't think so. In my view, the two activities overlap a bit. For example, the A in the DAC model of leadership is essentially management (i.e. organising and aligning resources towards a shared vision). Similarly, conceptual models of ‘team leadership’ normally include both management and leadership tasks.
  4. What is a leader? When I use this term, I refer to someone who is contributing to a process of influence (leadership) as described above. However, in our work with people from around the globe, it is clear that this label (‘leader’) does not sit comfortably on the shoulders of many water practitioners. Our implicit models of what a leader looks like are shaped by our culture and experiences. If you are not comfortable with calling yourself a ‘water leader’ (or even a ‘developing water leader’), you might prefer alternatives such as: someone who engages in leadership; an influencer; a facilitator; an enabler; a change agent; or a coordinator. The label is not important, as long as you feel empowered to engage in leadership when circumstances allow, and know how to do it.
  5. Does my work context matter? Yes! The context in which we work dictates the need for either leadership or management. If we need to drive change, build a new shared vision for a project or idea, and get people on-board we are working in the ‘leadership’ space. If we need to do similar work more efficiently, we are in the ‘management’ space. Most of us need to be able to engage in management and leadership as our circumstances change. Professor Kotter calls this being a ‘leader-manager’, and he calls for organisations in the 21st century to develop such people. The key is to recognise when management or leadership are needed, and having the ability to do both well.

So, are you a water manager or leader?… If you work in a context like me, you probably need to do both from time to time. It is also likely that, like me, you haven't mastered either management or leadership, and there is room for improvement.

IWC Learning Lab: Introduction to leadership in the water sector

If you'd like to learn more about leadership in the context of being a water practitioner, please join me at the  course within the IWC Learning Lab on 17-18 October in Brisbane. This course is designed for water practitioners who haven't formally studied leadership before, but recognise its importance as one ingredient we need to deliver more sustainable water futures.

About the author

Dr André Taylor’s personal mission is to work with enthusiastic leaders to drive positive change whilst demonstrating values of integrity, enabling others, sustainability and continuous learning.

He is a water scientist, environmental manager and leadership development specialist. He has worked in and around the water sector throughout his 25 year career.

He currently works as the International WaterCentre’s Leadership Specialist and directs his own consulting business. He also coordinates and teaches an MBAx leadership course (Leadership in a Complex Environment) for the University of NSW’s Business School.

IWC Learning Lab

Building on the expertise of delivering the internationally-recognised Master of Integrated Water Management and award-winning Water Leadership Program, the International WaterCentre (IWC) launching the IWC Learning Lab immediately after the World Water Congress & Exhibition 2016 in Brisbane, Australia from 17 – 21 October 2016.

Designed for individuals, teams and organisations to enhance interdisciplinary and institutional capacity, this 5-day event offers 19 master classes and study tours by 32 of Australia's leading researchers and practitioners in Integrated Water Management (IWM).

More information

To find out more about the IWC Learning Lab, or to register for Dr Taylor’s course please visit our website or contact:

Vera Magazzeni
T +61 7 3028 7690

For more information on the suite of leadership courses offered by the International WaterCentre, including the award-winning Water Leadership Program, please contact the program coordinator, Dr André Taylor at


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