Adaptive Leadership in the NYC Watershed

Published February 7, 2011 on

Heated negotiations are once again underway between New York City and its upstate neighbors over protecting the City’s watershed. With dozens of other water conflicts brewing, from San Francisco to Dubai to South Africa, it is a good time to glean the unusual and somewhat provocative leadership lessons being learned in New York’s own backyard.

Shaking Up the Watershed

Bringing a new sense of urgency to protecting the water supply of New York City’s 9 million residents, the EPA in 1989 established the controversial Surface Water Treatment Rule requiring certain cities to filter their water. The rule confronted New York City with a choice. Prove it could “respect and protect” its upstate watershed – a historically messy endeavor. Or start filtering the water – a relatively straightforward though costly option. Uncertainty about how to move forward could not have been higher.

Embittered animosity simmered fiercely for more than 100 years between the City and its upstate neighbors. “The D.E.P. [New York City Department of Environmental Protection] up here, with its little white trucks, is viewed like an occupying army,” said one upstate lawyer and New York University faculty member. However, against all odds, a Memorandum of Agreement was signed in January 1997 by New York City, New York State, the EPA, 73 local municipalities, eight counties in the watershed and five environmental organizations outlining a path forward.

Reflecting on that January day, the Executive Director of a local nonprofit created by the MOA to administer City funds for watershed protection said, “I didn’t think I could ever sit down with the City…I was constantly brought up on that hatred – you know, how the City just kind of came in and did what they wanted and bullied people around. So I was brought up hating the City.”

The EPA had successfully mobilized dozens of competing factions to achieve an historic agreement, widely cited as the premier international example of watershed management. How did it do it?

Leading Adaptively

The EPA’s actions reveal a somewhat unconventional approach to exercising leadership. As authorized by the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA could have acted more authoritatively. It chose instead to place the difficult work of finding a way forward on the watershed stakeholders themselves.

Reported extensively in the media, the EPA rule created a heightened sense of urgency within the region. It escalated tensions to the point that the usual rhetoric of “jobs vs. public health” no longer proved tenable. Was the EPA’s action an abrogation of its regulatory power? Or was it an effective form of leadership that forced the watershed stakeholders to address difficult challenges that they otherwise would have continued to avoid?

Exercising Leadership vs. Exercising Authority

The central challenge of leadership, particularly on environmental issues, lies in driving progress without having the authority or resource to dictate how people should or should not behave. This is difficult because leadership is often thought to mean that people in power should figure out the answer for themselves and then impose it on other stakeholders. In the case of the watershed, there was no one answer, no best practice to impose. Simply put, nobody knew what to do.

Leadership is not the same as holding a position of authority. It is an activity, not a formal position or personal characteristic. It may or may not come with authority. As Vice President, Al Gore occupied a position of authority. However, he experienced a great deal of difficulty in furthering his environmental agenda. Said Gore, “I’ve been trying to tell this story for a long time and I feel as if I’ve failed to get the message across.” People in authority sometimes lead and sometimes they do not, or cannot.

Others lead without formal authority. Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, was simply a marine biologist, but she mobilized an entire generation of American environmentalism. Bill McKibben, also an author but lacking the authority that comes with the scientific expertise Carsen had, has nonetheless coordinated thousands of demonstrations in 181 countries.

Distinguishing Technical Problems and Adaptive Challenges

Complex environmental challenges like watershed protection are fundamentally different from technical problems like building a water filtration plant. The EPA’s effectiveness in the watershed depended on this critical distinction.

Technical problems are well defined. Their solutions are generally known. Those with expertise and organizational capacity can solve them.  Building a filtration plant is complicated but there are clear procedures and precedents for hiring qualified experts, calculating costs, developing construction timelines, etc.

Adaptive challenges are not so well defined. The answers are not known in advance. All the needed information to make decisions is unavailable.  Many different stakeholders are involved. Even when a solution is discovered, no single group can impose it on the others. Most environmental problems, such as climate change, are adaptive. In contrast to technical problems, merely throwing money at an adaptive problem rarely, if ever, works. “Engineering,” as the NYC DEP Commissioner involved in the watershed said perceptively, “can’t do everything.”

Applying technical solutions to adaptive challenges constitutes the single biggest waste of time and resources in addressing environmental issues. Yet it happens time and again. Often because people rise to high positions of authority precisely because of their expertise in solving technical problems. Solving problems, and solving them quickly, is what we expect of our “leaders”.

Adaptive leadership, on the other hand, involves distinguishing technical problems from adaptive challenges and then mobilizing people to engage in adaptive work. While technical problems tend to resolve themselves quickly with the application of money and expertise, adaptive problems play out very differently over time. A step forward is followed by a step back, with people experiencing distress and conflict as a result.  Harnessing this disequilibrium and making sure it stays productive is another central task of adaptive leadership. This takes time and patience – 8 years in the case of the NYC watershed MOA – and the willingness and ability to hold steady amidst criticism and setbacks.

The Work Ahead

Like all natural systems, the watershed is a complex adaptive system that has evolved in the years since signing of the MOA. The imminent threat and opportunity of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale; diminished water quality and “turbidity” due to global warming;  Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to augment and supplement usage of the watershed – any combination of these and other forces could render the existing agreement obsolete.

Whose work is it to “orchestrate the conflict” between natural gas companies, poor and unemployed residents who stand to benefit from mining royalties, and those who seek to protect the watershed? One of the consequences of the current political climate is that the risk profile for the EPA and policy makers makes any meaningful high profile involvement or risk taking on their part unlikely.

Leading in the watershed, or on any complex environmental issue, requires the will and skill to distinguish technical problems from adaptive challenges and hold people’s attention to the latter, orchestrate conflict and hold steady as people struggle to let go of old ways of working and discover new pathways forward.

Eric Martin is the Business Director and consultant at Cambridge Leadership Associates, a leadership consulting firm that grew out of the work of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky on Adaptive Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School.