Fresh Water Sustainability is in Our Hands – “collaborative leadership” in a COVID world


In this issue of Waterbucket eNews, the Partnership for Water Sustainability features an article contributed by Dr. Kathy Bishop, associate professor in the School of Leadership Studies, Royal Roads University. Exactly ten years ago, Kathy organized The Dialogue in Nanaimo: Fresh Water Sustainability is in Our Hands!held on June 11, 2010.

“We convened at Vancouver Island University to identify solutions and inspire action so that Vancouver Island would become a flagship model of fresh water sustainability,” stated Kathy Bishop in 2010 when she described what Leadership Vancouver Island set out to accomplish in organizing the ‘Dialogue in Nanaimo’.

“Below, her reflections are structured in three parts as a PAST-PRESENT-FUTURE storyline. Kathy Bishop takes the reader back in time to establish context. Then she fast forwards to the present in order to springboard to the future. In so doing, she shares her perspective on ‘collaborative leadership’ and offers some thought-provoking questions as calls to actions for moving forward in a COVID world,” states Kim Stephens, Waterbucket eNews Editor and Executive Director, Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia.

“Kathy Bishop earned her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies (Leadership and Applied Theatre). The ‘Dialogue in Nanaimo’ was part of her doctoral work. The Nanaimo event, and the process leading up to it, was a test application of how to interweave two streams of thought – leadership and applied theatre. In this article, Kathy Bishop reflects on what she learned through the Dialogue in Nanaimo process.”  

“Water is a great metaphor for collaborative leadership,” states Dr. Kathy Bishop, School of Leadership Studies, Royal Roads University

Context for Collaborative Leadership

Citizen science coupled with collaboration between the local government and stewardship sectors is a powerful combination. When the combination of citizen talent is aligned with a local government that is both visionary and focused, outstanding achievements are not only possible, but realistic.

“Collaborative leadership conceptualizes leadership as shared among members, rather than turning to one heroic leader to guide and be the expert,” writes Kathy Bishop. “COVID may be the wake-up call that we have needed.”

Did You Know:

The premise of collaborative leadership says: If you bring the appropriate people together in constructive ways with good information, they will create authentic visions and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of the organization and community. 

How we decide is as important as what we decide. 

Collaboration is more than a tool in a toolbox. When collaboration works, it reproduces and builds the characteristics of civic community, allowing us to deal with future issues in constructive ways.

Flashback to 2010 to set the scene for reflections by Kathy Bishop (scroll down to main article)

Of historical relevance, the ‘Dialogue in Nanaimo’ was the venue for initial release of Beyond the Guidebook 2010: Implementing a New Culture for Urban Watershed Protection and Restoration in British Columbia. This guidance document described how a ‘convening for action’ culture had taken root in British Columbia.

Beyond the Guidebook 2010 presented examples of the regional team approach (collaborative leadership) in three regions of BC. The fourth in the series, Beyond the Guidebook 2020, will be completed at the end of this year. It will provide perspective on the evolution of collaborative leadership over the past five years.

In 2002, Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia advanced this provocative premise: land development and watershed protection can be compatible. This radical shift in thinking resulted from recognition of HOW a science-based understanding could bridge the gap between high-level policy objectives and site design practices.


Quotable Quote

When ‘Beyond the Guidebook 2010’ was released, Kathy Bishop provided this quotable quote:

“It is a great resource, well written … down to earth, and in line with what the  Water Sustainability Action Plan speaks about – the new business as usual, connecting the dots and giving useful tools and roadmaps for success. It is an easy read, and captivating with the stories, quotes and pictures.”

Opening up to try something different

“Water is a great metaphor for collaborative leadership. It is life giving. It nurtures. It flows and changes shape. It can be liquid, ice or steam. It overcomes obstacles with its constant presence; moving over, around or wearing down. One drop among many,” stated Kathy Bishop.

“Ten years ago, as a volunteer board member of Leadership Vancouver Island, I connected with Kim Stephens, Eric Bonham and Ted van der Gulik around the possibility of collaborating. I was swept up in their camaraderie, sense of fun, and deep commitment to water sustainability. They were looking to expand their network. Many hands make light work.

“But more than that they had a vision. It was one that didn’t include some of us but all of us. I enjoyed how they willingly brought me in, heard my ideas, and then let me run with an idea I had. An idea that ten years ago seemed edgy. As a PhD student, I was exploring how theatre could be utilized to affect positive change in the world.

“We brought together a panel of eight diverse yet highly committed leaders from different perspectives. They were also willing to try a new way of being, doing, and relating in panel. So together, we explored different possibilities of how to perform a theater-based dialogue. We also had honest conversations and explored fears about it coming off as hokey. I found myself often saying, ‘”Trust me. I got your back. We can do this.”

“They showed up for rehearsals. Realizing it would take many more rehearsals to create a polished play, we came up with a plan to improvise. On the day, we walked on the stage, every one of us fully engaged and willing to creatively improv with the basic structure we had agreed upon: water sustainability activists in a therapy group for being water users.”

Watch the Video on YouTube:

For the ‘Dialogue in Nanaimo’, Kathy Bishop recruited a team of knowledgeable individuals who were willing to participate in an ‘improv theatre’ format rather than make formal presentations. Her theatre-based approach primed and energized the audience for small group discussions

Deeply connecting and taking risks

“I dug out my old theatre paper the other day. My prof said it was a good project, but the quality of the story was boring. “Seven people agreeing on stage doesn’t make for a titillating drama”, he said. I appreciated his sage wisdom. He taught me that “In theatre, if two people are on stage and they both agree, one needs to go.”

“Yes, it was a good project. Our story may not have met drama standards, but it exceeded our expectations. The purpose of the dialogue wasn’t drama. It was about connecting. Connections were made that day among the panel, the audience, and for me. Although risky, we were surprised how quickly a diverse group of people could come together over a shared vision in dialogue. Differences shifted to consensus and collaboration. In this way, our story was refreshing and had ripples.

“For me, although my path continued to flow along the river of leadership education, I have not lost my connection to or water sustainability.  Waterbucket eNews is the only email I have received for ten years straight. I have been watching in the eddy, cheering these movers and shakers on as they flow with ideas and actions sometimes ahead of their time. Leaders who are values-based and are a flagship model of collaborative leadership in action.

“Collaborative leadership conceptualizes leadership as shared among members, rather than turning to one heroic leader to guide and be the expert. It flows. It changes shape. It overcomes obstacles with its constant presence; moving over, around or wearing down.”

To Learn More:

Read the set of stories posted for the Dialogue in Nanaimo.

Small changes can have profound impacts

“Today our world is facing some big challenges, economically, socially, environmentally, politically. Yet it has taken the global tsunami of COVID-19 for us to potentially wake up.

“I attended the 2019 International Leadership conference, where our past prime minister the right honorable Paul Martin was speaking on a panel. He said that we are living in times where it is no longer enough to just not be a racist, we must be anti-racist. People who believe in walls and borders are not understanding that we are all in this together.“It doesn’t matter if we keep our beaches clean if our neighbors down the way are throwing garbage in it. And, contagious diseases aren’t held off by walls. Paul Martin taught me that it is not enough to be a bystander today. We need to take a stand for something. Be a force for good. We may not be able to do everything, but we can do something. Small changes can have profound impacts.

“Consider how the wolves change rivers.How wolves change rivers tells the story of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Deer had become rampant in the park consuming most of the vegetation. With the arrival of the wolves, the deer shifted what they did. They no longer ventured into open regions and deeper thickets.  This caused new vegetation in those areas to grow.  As a result, various birds and animals returned. Beavers created dams; shifting the water flow. And, the new vegetation served to slow erosion, so the riverbanks stabilized. This is how the wolves changed the rivers.

“We need to find our way back to the interconnectedness we have as a people and a planet. 

“COVID-19 may be the wake-up call that we have needed to realize how deep the water runs. In times of crisis, although difficult, beauty can emerge. An opportunity exists in the space between what was and what will be. What will this be for us in BC? Well that depends on every one of us.

“What is calling you to action? What can we do together? What obstacles will you/we overcome with your/our constant presence; moving over, around or wearing down? … as liquid, ice, or steam, flowing, changing shape, changing rivers, nurturing.

“One drop among many. Life giving. We can do this.”