Defining Leadership

Defining leadership is like identifying ethics – it is easier to identify what is not leadership than what is.  In fact Scott Adams titled one of his Dilbert books “Don’t Step in the Leadership,” as a quip to indicate the difficulty in defining what is leadership.  One of the problems is that leadership cannot exist if there are no people following the direction.  Hence a leader of one is not a leader.


There is good and bad leadership.  Lemmings are an example of the bad leadership.  That’s what your mother was talking about when she asked you if you’d jump off a bridge to be like the other kids.  No, what we want is positive direction, with a long-term improvement to conditions or reduction is the severity of a risk or problem.  As a result is if often easier to measure results after the fact – it’s what we leave behind that defines leadership.  Hard to tell when leadership is happening now.

Elected officials are often pointed to as leaders, but we could spend pages discussing the fallacy of that argument.  For elected officials it is often circumstances that define their leadership skills:  Lincoln in the Civil War, FDR with the Great Depression and World War II, Washington refusing to be named king are examples of leadership.  Congress today, not so much.

Likewise we have business leaders, but mostly they are making money for their stockholders; few are making a big difference to use today.  The latter is why we all know Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Mark Zuckerberg, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone – they all made a difference in our lives and how we live.  But who is the CEO of Goldman Sachs?  See you probably don’t know and that’s the problem.  The impact on your life is missing.

Hollywood puts up leaders.  Ok I like Clint Eastwood, but aside from some great movies he’s made or directed, I don’t really have much reason to follow him personally.  Mostly we know a lot about what we don’t want, see the  Kardashians.  Music is similar – not much leadership there despite some great, and potentially insightful tunes (thanks Ronnie van Zant, Hughie Thomasson and Danny Joe Brown, RIP all).  No, leadership is not defined in the entertainment industry.

Leadership is defined by leaders, which is the problem since leadership it is how leaders approach situations.  It is what leaders envision that causes others to buy into their vision and cooperate toward achieving their goals.  It is how they approach a challenge and coalesce resources to resolve it, regardless how big the issue may be.  It is how they carry the torch, while supporting their staff which does the work.  It is how they guide as opposed to direct employees.  It is how they share accolades with the staff and accept the blame for failure, as opposed to the opposite.  All good, but most times leadership is hard to see when it is happening.  Ultimately, leaders are defined by what they leave behind – does the organization or product survive their departure, or not?  The goals of Lincoln and FDR survived their passing.

So what is leadership and how do we apply it to the water industry?  Well I’m not sure we are any closer to a definition of leadership, but maybe we have a better idea what to look for.  Clearly leaders in the water industry will be the ones trying to create a long-term vision that will be expected to survive their time in the field.  They will argue for sustainable use of water and the necessity to cooperate and communicate with other users to reach optimal solutions to over-allocation issues.  They will test new technologies as solutions to old problems.  They will implement “outrageous” concepts like indirect potable reuse and develop cooperative efforts with other industries to get to solutions like using water and wastewater sites to generate distributed power,  things most don’t consider cost effective or proper today.  They will participate in research efforts and outreach to the public and the youth.  And they will empower and train their staff.  Ok, maybe not all these things, but look around, where are the leaders in your utility?

We need to talk more about this subject….




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