Reflections of a Water Buffalo: Leadership Then and Now
The following exchange is from a recent question-and-answer session between Joe Gelt, editor of the Arizona Water Resource newsletter, and David S. “Sid” Wilson. Mr. Wilson recently retired after 14 years as general manager of the Central Arizona Project. His stature and authority within the Arizona water community well establishes his water buffalo credentials — or rather his pedigree.
JG: Who qualifies as a water buffalo?
SW: When I started my career in 1967, I was hired by the Salt River Project as a Watershed Specialist. My first assignment was as SRP’s representative on the Southwest Phreatophyte Subcommittee. I was 23 or 24 and everybody else had gray hair. I thought they were incredibly old — they might have been about 55 — and much wiser than I could ever be. They were generally recognized as “Water Buffalos”. A Water Buffalo is someone who has studied water issues in a region long enough and thoughtfully enough to be a person that others look to for advice, insight and help in solving water related problems.
Every generation is in the process of developing water buffalos. There are bright young people coming out of college each year and if they are thoughtful, committed to continued learning on the job and stick with it long enough they may one day be considered a Water Buffalo.
JG: Are Water Buffalos a thriving or endangered species?
SW: When I was younger it seemed to me that there were more Water Buffalos than today. They were people who had been with their organizations for a long time and were really committed to water resource management.
I don’t see as much of that today. I don’t feel that we are retaining as many capable people over the long haul. For example, look at the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Due to budget reductions and retirements they have lost the core of folks that could be viewed as Water Buffalos and with the associated pay and employment uncertainties, it will be hard to attract and retain folks for that long-term commitment that is needed. Same thing for the Bureau of Reclamation, various cities, etc. Even the Central Arizona Project is losing those folks to retirement.
I’m also concerned that the political environment agencies are faced with today tends to impede Water Buffalo development. Continuing political “heat” creates a “fox hole mentality” so that folks tend to keep their heads down and avoid risk taking. If they become at all controversial, some special interest group, politician or bureaucrat may go after them. A job well done is no guarantee against demotions, transfers or dismissals (voluntary or otherwise).
JG: What are some changes confronting new leaders today?
SW: The technology and associated real-time availability of large amounts of information has had a huge impact on how we deal with water issues. Back when I started, the data we had was more limited. Even so, I think folks were often closer to understanding what was happening. It was both science and art in the best sense. Today the amount of information is incredibly voluminous. It requires the use of computers to sort, assess and interpret the data. This technology and data availability is a tremendous advantage but we have to be careful. Remember the old adage “garbage in; garbage out”. As data collection becomes less hands on and more voluminous it can cause us to lose that ‘gut’ feeling old timers talk about. We can’t rely solely on the computer print out for answers while losing the very real benefits of human qualification. If that happens, we can’t tell a bad answer from a good one.
JG: What is the greatest single change over the course of your career?
SW: In 1967 there were relatively few agencies that possessed significant technical water knowledge. At that time the Arizona Department of Water Resources was just emerging from the old Arizona Water Commission. The cities had very few water professionals working for them. The agricultural districts had farmers very knowledgeable about onfield application of water but little about overall planning and management of a water district. The Salt River Project was the major water player in the state, even though its water service area was limited to the Salt River valley. Water knowledge was limited and a relatively few people/organizations had a lot of control over what was done in this state...and in the West for that matter.
That has changed dramatically! The competition in the late 50s and early 60s was largely between — I am speaking of Arizona but it was fairly typical throughout the West — agricultural water users and developing municipalities. The competition today is much more diverse and intense. There are more interests involved and virtually all of them have more capacity and knowledge than the “old guard”. You still have competition between agriculture and cities, but you also have competition between one big city and another big city; between big cities and small cities; cities and rural areas; nonIndians and Indians; people needs and environmental needs; between states and even countries (U.S. a Mexico).
It is now tougher — maybe impossible — for one entity or interest to dominate. If that domination occurs, it can not be sustained. Autocratic decision making is no longer effective. It takes collaborative leadership and shared decision making to develop sustainable water management strategies and solutions.
In this change area, another significant difference exists today in Arizona and I suspect throughout the West. When I began my career, you had a political system with people who really understood the importance of a sustainable water supply. Frankly without water and air conditioners, Phoenix would not exist. Politicians understood that. I don’t believe you have that today. There are very few elected officials who really understand water. Unfortunately, it is too often “form over substance”. There is not a lot of foresight given to considering the long-term future of Arizona and water. There is a lot of talk but no real commitment in my view.
JG: What are the qualities that define good leadership?
SW: I think leadership is a timeless thing. I think the most effective leaders are people who are good, thoughtful listeners. It is so important to be a good listener, to look at issues from other folks’ perspectives and then look for a problem solution that addresses the major needs of everyone involved.
An effective leader is an interactive person who works with the various stakeholders to find the best solution. There is always, ALWAYS more than one solution to a problem.
JG: What is the best preparation for emerging water leaders?
SW: A good basic education is important in water. My background was hydrology. It could have been engineering or some other science oriented field. You do not need an advanced degree. Secondly, the formal education is only the beginning. The foundation. You should proactively continue your learning through experience. There is a difference between the classroom and — I hate to use the trite expression — “the real world”. In the classroom you learn basic principles (and I include communication here). In the “real world” you find more complexity and less structure. The basic principles still apply but differences have to be considered. Even “on the face of it” common situations differ. You can only learn about differences and how to apply principles through actual practice.
I also think there are some inherent qualities in leadership that you cannot mechanically teach “from the ground up”. A sense of humor and humility are absolutes in my book. A sense of humor can save you when life gets really grim...and a sense of humility guards against insufferable arrogance. Also, we all need to realize that we are not perfect. We will make mistakes. It’s how we handle the mistakes that really provide a measure of our leadership ability.
Finally, I think leadership is that ability to identify and attract capable people; give them a vision and then let them help you paint the final picture. Don’t be threatened by people smarter than you because they are really what will make you successful.
JG: Any final thoughts?
SW: Throughout my career I always looked to the generation ahead of me...the folks a generation older than me; I looked at the ones I admired, that I thought did things really well and used them as my mentors. Sometimes formally and sometimes they never knew. I wanted to be that person in the way that I performed. They were people, usually further along in their careers and a little older. They were my role models — my mentors.
Finally, leadership (like life) is a never ending journey. It is a continuum of learning and observing and putting what you learn and observe to work in an effective way.