The most important factor in ensuring a sustainable water future for all? It may not be what you think.

Elisa M. Speranza, US Water Alliance | May 1, 2017

On a beautiful Thursday in August of 2005, I traveled to Denver for a company training session. I was supposed to fly home to New Orleans on Saturday, but instead I decided to stay over the weekend to avoid Hurricane Katrina, which was bearing down on the Gulf Coast. On Monday morning, the 29th of August, I flipped on the TV in my hotel room to find out that New Orleans had dodged the bullet, once again. The enormous and dangerous Category 5 hurricane had indeed veered east, and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, unfortunately for them, took the direct hit. About halfway through the morning, however, people at the office started mentioning that something was happening in New Orleans. I hopped online to see what was going on, confused because I thought it was all over. There, on CNN, I saw my city filling up with water.

The levees on the canals that were designed to carry stormwater out of the city, into Lake Pontchartrain, had failed, and failed catastrophically. The lake was pouring into the city, driving the people who hadn’t evacuated (for many reasons, mostly economic), to their rooftops, waiting to be rescued. It was surreal.

Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded, with water standing up to 20 feet, for three weeks, in 95 degree heat. Close to 2000 people lost their lives, and thousands of our fellow Americans were trapped in appalling conditions at the Superdome and the Convention Center for days until their government finally came to rescue them. It was shameful, and heart-breaking. With over $100 billion in economic damage, it was also the costliest disaster in US history.

Why did this happen? Was it a failure of technology? A lack of funding? Unenforced regulations? Bad luck? The fact that New Orleans is mostly below sea level? While those factors certainly played a role, the root cause was a failure of leadership. If there’s one factor that is the key to a sustainable water future for all, it’s not technology, money, regulations, workforce demographics, “big data” or any of the other important issues we talk about all the time. A sustainable water future for all depends on collaborative leadership.

The bad news is that we’re all living with failed leadership of the past — lack of foresight, greed, corruption, parochialism, negligence and sometimes just old-fashioned stupidity. In New Orleans, we’re doing fine now, but in hindsight, the domino effect a lack of informed, collaborative and altruistic leadership was devastating. In hindsight, virtually all of our water-related challenges have their roots in inadequate, short-sighted, siloed leadership.

Over the past year, the US Water Alliance, in cooperation with other water partners, has held a series of One Water for America Listening Sessions. In 13 cities, partnering with over 40 public, private, and non-profit organizations, we heard from over 500 stakeholders about their challenges and opportunities. The common themes emerged around regional collaboration, innovation and technology, equity and affordability, and funding and financing. And in every place we visited, we also heard stories of collaborative leadership that gave us hope.

There are many great examples of communities taking a more holistic approach to managing water these days. For example, the City of Los Angeles has been a leader in re-thinking how we live with water, how we leverage every drop across the water cycle to benefit public health, the environment, and the economy. One Water LA is an ambitious and historic effort to coordinate the work of multiple city departments and community stakeholders to achieve a sustainable water management system.

I’m sure it has been a messy process in LA, as it’s been elsewhere, with multiple stakeholders and often competing interests. But I’ve found that sometimes the way to solve a complex problem is not to cut it up into bite-sized pieces, focusing on one aspect at a time. Rather, collaborative and effective leaders often make the problem set larger, involving more people and creating a scenario where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, where there are more winners overall, and therefore a broader constituency for the hard, expensive, potentially disruptive work to get done.

That was true when I worked on the Boston Harbor Project, one of this country’s greatest environmental success stories. We reversed decades of pollution from partially-treated sewage, with a collaborative approach (and $4 billion). The Harbor is thriving now, economically and environmentally. It’s true today in New Orleans, where we are learning new ways to work together and live with water, rather than fighting it.

The US Water Alliance’s One Water Roadmap outlines seven principles that can help guide us as we think about a sustainable water future for all, and how our approach to leadership can make a difference:

  1. A mindset that all water has value, from the minute it falls from the sky or bubbles up from the ground, to when it’s discharged or (better yet) reused,
  2. A focus on achieving multiple benefits with any water project,
  3. A systems approach, recognizing the integrated nature of water management,
  4. Watershed-scale thinking and action, taking into account all the various stakeholders who impact the watershed,
  5. Right-sized solutions, including decentralized approaches,
  6. Partnerships for progress, bringing public, private and non-profit players together, and
  7. Inclusion and engagement of all, including a focus on vulnerable populations and affordable water service.

If this all sounds a little overwhelming, here’s some good news: starting right now, today, anyone, at any level, at any point in their career can help to change the trajectory of these seemingly intractable challenges. It’s about empathy, communication, long-term thinking, and expanding the boundaries of how we approach problem-solving to make sure we don’t leave anyone out.

“But wait,” you’re thinking, “I’m not a leader. That’s for other people. I’m an introvert. I’m too busy. I have a family to take care of. My boss is an idiot. We don’t have the money…” There are lots and lots of ways to talk yourself out of this, to let someone else take the lead, to convince yourself there is too much you can’t control. It’s up to you to put all those excuses aside and do it anyway. There are many opportunities to learn and grow as leaders every day.

For example, we’re all looking for leadership lessons from the drama that surrounded Flint, Michigan. Academics, engineers, regulators, doctors, consultants, community activists — many people helped amplify that community’s suffering and shine a light on the uncomfortable but real environmental injustice aspects of the story. If you haven’t read the Flint Task Force report, I highly recommend it, by the way. Flint was not a failure of infrastructure. It was a crisis brought on by a failure of leadership, a lack of empathy, group-think, abdication of accountability, and compounded bad decisions.

Since I’m originally from Boston, in addition to being Irish, Italian and Catholic, I am, of course, a big baseball fan. I often look for leadership examples in sports. Take Theo Epstein, who helped break the famous “Curse of the Bambino” in 2004, and was ranked the #1 on Fortune magazine’s greatest leaders list (the Pope was #3). After his success with the Red Sox, when the Chicago Cubs came for Theo’s help, he told an interviewer that he “realized he would have to grow as a leader” to replicate that success in Chicago. That growth, he said, entailed understanding the ways in which “character, discipline and chemistry” interact. Good lessons for any team, especially one looking to accomplish the impossible.

Here’s some more good news. You don’t have to be born with some special genetic code to be a great leader. In her best-selling book Bankable Leadership, organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich shares this encouraging fact: researchers believe that leadership is largely learned. One study showed that 70 percent of the variability in leadership effectiveness is the result of experience. [Her new book, Insight, launches tomorrow and is also well worth checking out.]

Our lives, and the lives of those who depend on us, will be better if we make the effort to be better, more collaborative leaders. We are currently experiencing a crisis of public confidence in drinking water in the US. I’ve spent thirty years working on stakeholder involvement and strategic communications with water utilities, and this breaks my heart. Despite our best efforts to be more proactive and communicate with the public more, to shed the old “silent service” approach, in a recent Gallup poll, 63% of respondents said they worried “a great deal” about pollution of drinking water, the highest level recorded in Gallup’s annual environmental poll since 2001.

That’s why the Value of Water Campaign is working to educate and inspire the nation about how water is essential to our economy and way of life and why water needs more investment at every level. You can find out more, including how you can get involved, at

Collaborative leadership is particularly suited for water industry leaders because of our complex challenges, the many stakeholders who are impacted by our work, the high stakes if we fail, and our sacred duty of public service.

Elisa is a Senior Fellow with the US Water Alliance. Join her and an all-star lineup of water leaders at the One Water Summit, June 27–29, 2017 in New Orleans. This post is adapted from a Keynote Speech for California/Nevada AWWA Spring Conference delivered on April 11, 2017.