Top Traits of a Great Leader

During an unprecedented wave of retirements, leadership is a hot issue for water and wastewater utilities. To develop effective leaders to fill the vacuum, management should search for employees who tote crystal balls – figuratively speaking. 

“Organizations in general are over-managed and under-led,” says Ben Rosen, a Hanes professor of management at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. “They need people who can look to the future and position their organizations so they can be successful. 

“Sometimes utilities don’t feel the need to change because they don’t have competition. In some instances, they’re a little more resistant to change and less forward-looking, which makes leadership even more important. Leadership is much more than just managing day-to-day. It requires a big-picture focus. Many managers are so consumed with the present that they don’t look to the future.” 

Good leaders need to be agents of change – people who can spot trends and see how they affect the organization, then develop ways to respond. Those changes could involve new technology, new regulations, security issues, diseases, changing workforce demographics, privatization, and more. 

“In difficult times, budgets might tighten up, or maybe demand for water will suddenly increase,” Rosen notes. “Or the way you clean your water may be banned. All these things require the organization to think about how to sustain itself in the future.” 

Leaders also need to set high expectations, hold employees accountable, and bring new ideas into organizations. 

Back to school

Along with teaching, Rosen directs UNC’s Water and Wastewater Leadership Center, a joint venture between the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation. 

Held once a year in late winter or early spring, the 12-day residential program aims to improve the skills of 25 to 30 up-and-coming leaders. Participants receive 360-degree feedback from peers and talk with a career coach. 

“Part of the inspiration for the program is the big wave of retirements,” Rosen says. “We get people in from all around the country. There’s a tremendous amount of networking and comparing notes, and a lot of valuable information is transmitted during meals and informal conversations.”           

Graduates also can attend a 2-1/2-day alumni program 18 months later. That session helps participants reconnect with classmates, evaluate their progress and take classes that reinforce the core concepts they learned. 

Leadership traits

So, what are some traits of good leaders? Rosen suggests looking for people who: 

  • Speak the right language. “Leaders need articulate their vision in a way that people can understand it,” Rosen says. “They need to create a sense of urgency – light a fire under people and get them excited about change.” 
  • Shape organizational culture. Leaders must decide what values employees should hold, then empower them to make decisions based on those values. “On any given day, people are faced with decisions,” Rosen notes. “Do you want them to decide based on speed, or by quality?” 
  • Reach out to others. Working in a vacuum hampers the ability to lead, so leaders must be active in professional organizations, stay well read, network with peers and keep abreast of new technology. 
  • Are politically savvy. The ability to understand people, externally and internally, is a key attribute. “The goal is to find overlapping interests where parties can agree and collaborate, rather than adversarial positions,” Rosen says. 
  • Develop a game plan. Expecting the unexpected – and having a plan to deal with it – is also important. “Maybe the organization is concerned about how some kind of epidemic might affect the water supply, and how to handle staffing if there are lots of sick people,” Rosen says. “If so, then they need to develop a contingency plant to handle it. The same is true for integrating new technology.” This also means dropping the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t fix-it philosophy in favor of proactively addressing problems. 
  • Delegate responsibilities. Assigning tasks to others empowers them and teaches them new skills, while freeing up time for managers to do big-picture thinking. Managers need to trust employees to whom they delegate tasks. “Often, if you delegate and someone messes up, you take the heat for it,” Rosen observes. “So you need to trust people. If they know you trust them, they’re not as likely to make mistakes. On the other hand, you need to let them know how much error you’ll tolerate. Different organizations have different tolerances for letting people make mistakes.” 
  • Set and act on high priorities. Good leaders don’t put off plans that could make their organizations more innovative. If they invest time in things that aren’t deadline-oriented, they’ll have the luxury of looking back years down the road, happy they made the time to do so, Rosen notes. A good example is technology, such as electronic meter reading or advanced billing procedures.           

Plan and act

Overall, emphasizes that good leaders must be able to look to the future, analyze a variety of trends, then develop solutions to meet emerging challenges. “In tough times, you need innovative solutions to problems,” he says. “While what you’re doing may have got you where you are today, it may not get you where you want to be tomorrow.” 

To learn more about the Water and Wastewater Leadership Center, visit


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