By Katy Lackey, Program Manager, US Water Alliance

January 29, 2020

We are up against the greatest challenges of our time – a looming climate crisis, skyrocketing expenses in major urban cities, deteriorating infrastructure, a nation that seems increasingly divided… there is so much to do and never enough time to get it all done.

It can be overwhelming, even disheartening. Knowing how heavy our challenges are makes water issues seem insurmountable sometimes. And while the One Water movement breathes new life into the water sector, it can be hard to know where to start.

We know we want a One Water future, but how do we get there?

Last week the US Water Alliance released a new report, One Water Change Leadership: The Six Essential Capacities. The report is a story of change leadership. It is a guide to the kind of transformation we see driving One Water not just as a reality, but to become the norm.

I’m excited about this work because, perhaps for the first time, it digs into what we all need­—and can do—to create that norm.

Leadership is not a job title or a position on an organizational chart. It is a choice and a practice grown over time. “Leadership is about mobilizing people to make progress on challenges,” says Michael Mucha, of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. It is about bold vision and action. And it grows a kind of change so deep that the structures themselves begin to shift.

So, what does this look like for One Water?

Over the past year at US Water Alliance, I worked with the Innovation Network for Communities to dive into the experiences of 10 One Water changemakers at water and wastewater utilities. We wanted to understand who they were, what made them tick, and most importantly, how they are making One Water happen.

From their experiences, a common set of capacities emerged—skills, knowledge, and attitudes—that are enabling the transformation of these changemakers, their staff, and their organizations to become One Water leaders. Remarkably, despite their diverse backgrounds and water challenges, we heard many of the same things over and over again: The team is the leader. Think beyond the permit. Take risks. Be open and inclusive. There’s always something to learn. Root solutions in community.

The resulting framework were our six essential capacities for One Water change leadership:

  1. Set the Vision. Embed a passion for One Water in the Utility’s vision and plans.
  2. Shape the Culture. Cultivate a “One Water way of doing things” in the hearts, minds, and habits of employees.
  3. Foster Possibility Thinking. Challenge assumptions and reframe problems to stimulate new One Water ways of thinking.
  4. Enable Innovation. Create an environment that encourages One Water experimentation and outside-the-box solutions.
  5. Build Trust and Collaborate. Develop dependable “win-win” relationships to optimize One Water solutions.
  6. Adapt and Learn. Adjust a leadership approach to meet current and future challenges and opportunities.

Existing and future leaders can learn and grow these capacities. These capacities will take the One Water projects, plans, and approaches we see spreading across the nation and ensure they are lasting transformations. In fact, the framework details the key components of each capacity. The report also includes examples of the capacities in action and leadership advice from the changemakers.

One of the things that inspired me most in talking to the 10 changemakers, is how they don’t give up. They see every opportunity for learning and evolving, much like the One Water movement itself.

The water challenges we face are surmountable. Even amidst the difficult geopolitical, social, and climate context in which we’re operating. “The real challenge is to overcome our fear of failure and to say YES to new ideas,” Norma Camacho of Valley Water reminds us.

Say yes. Ask questions. Try something new. And “don’t make it about yourself,” cautions Mami Hara of Seattle Public Utilities. “It’s not about my vision as a leader, it’s about us. It’s our vision as a team, as a community.”

We couldn’t have said it better. The One Water movement is about us as a sector, in our communities, and as a nation. At the US Water Alliance, we believe a One Water future is possible. We believe that anyone can be a One Water leader—and in fact, everyone must be a One Water leader to get us there. Won’t you join us?