The young leading the young
Ah, to be young and carefree! The youth are full of creative energy and dynamic ambition. Being young is a time for endless possibilities. But it is also a time of creeping self-doubt and frustration — a sense that one is not making any difference in the face of seemingly insurmountable and intractable problems around us. To a young professional whose direction is yet to make sense, the questions can be daunting: What am I doing here? Do I really have something to contribute? Am I on the right path?
It matters that we help young water professionals confront these difficult questions if we are to develop their leadership potential. Many of us go through the same tumultuous period — the infamous quarter-life crisis — and in my case, it almost made me quit the water sector. The combined weight of expectations made me feel inadequate: there was the expectation of superiors to turn in a perfect output despite my having little to no experience, or the expectation to get ahead in the competitive career race with friends. There was also that nagging feeling that I should be doing something more to help alleviate society’s ills. It made me feel irrelevant that at every end of my 9 to 5, I was barely moving the needle in changing an industry that seemed so rigid, inflexible, and disjointed. I felt frustrated, angry, out of place, and voiceless.
My turning point came when, together with five friends, I co-founded the Philippine Young Water Professionals (PYWP) in 2016. We helped each other come to terms with our common frustrations and unique incapacities. We shared a burning passion to do more and be more; we quickly realized that we could only do so together. Armed with nothing but the confidence that we had each other’s backs, we approached the IWA and the Philippine Water Works Association with a vision for change. PYWP has a clear social agenda for change and we intend to bring other youth leaders onboard.
Three years later I would listen with keen attention to Lisa Dreier, Managing Director of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University, who delivered a lecture about Systems Leadership. As Lisa defined Systems Leadership, I was struck at how closely it described our journey in setting up PYPW, as well as my personal journey of finding my voice in the water sector.
Systems Leadership gave me the language and structure to draw the link from systems thinking — that is, understanding the big picture — to systemic change. Systems Leadership is “a set of skills and capacities that individuals and organizations can use to catalyze, enable, and support systems-level change.” Systems Leaders are those who apply their knowledge of complex systems (or in the case of water, a complex system of systems) to generate and sustain progressive transformation.
There are many “aha!” moments that can trigger one’s journey towards Systems Leadership. One of them is realizing that no one is in control. When no one individual or entity has the singular power to fix a complex problem, it can be the source of disillusionment and hopelessness — the kind of frustration that would weigh heavily on young minds. Another “aha!” moment is realizing that it is up to us to jumpstart and drive change. The tagline that I coined for PYWP reflects this strong sense of duty: “When the future of water is in your hands, you act decisively to make every drop count.” My social media hashtag — #TheOnusIsOnUs — is a similar reminder that we are ultimately responsible not as individuals, but as a collective.
When we developed the vision-mission for PYWP, we expressly acknowledged that no one entity could fully govern water. We could only connect those who are trying to solve water problems by helping them see the big picture of their interconnected efforts. Thus we broadened our messaging and advocacy beyond water utilities, which are the usual “water sector” audience in the Philippines. Today, our members come from all kinds of traditionally non-water (or not strictly water) backgrounds such as those working in biodiversity or the food industry. As I would playfully say, PYWP (which is pronounced as “pipe”) is the pipe that connects disparate actors to solve shared water problems. PYWP’s agenda is always “water-plus” — water plus poverty, water plus health, water plus disaster risk, etc. — because water is the connector and conduit of development.
Another important realization about systems change is that we should be prepared to be in it for the long haul. Youth comes with the impatience of wanting to see things change overnight, but that’s not possible for wicked, systemic problems such as climate change, water scarcity, or transitioning to the circular economy. The challenge for PYWP and other youth organizations is to sustain the momentum and excitement with which we carry out our missions. Systems Leaders monitor and celebrate incremental progress, no matter how small they might seem in the greater scheme of things.
A long-term perspective also helps Systems Leaders be adaptive and resilient. Solutions that do not work today may have a chance in a few years. The question is: will you still be involved and engaged in solving water problems to see those solutions bear fruit? I certainly am determined to do so. We must keep growing to become the future leaders that the world deserves.
In leading PYWP and learning about Systems Leadership, I have come to realize that it is possible for the young to lead the young. Yes, we do need guidance, training, and mentorship (please do not hold back on these!) but equally important is that we need to belong to a community with other young people who understand the pressures of being young, inadequate, and imperfect. In designing PYWP’s storytelling session called “Kwentubig: Stories About Water”, I made it a point to help our young speakers surface their personal stories to help others realize that we share not only the same vision, but also similar career challenges and setbacks.
The world’s wicked, systemic problems will continue to escalate, and the careers that we have chosen in the water sector will prove to be tough, unforgiving, and often thankless. It is important to have the support of other young people who can help keep our chin up when we are just about ready to drop out.
After her lecture, I connected with Lisa to share how the concepts of Systems Leadership resonated with our PYWP journey. That was how PYWP got featured as an example of the power of individuals in a complex system in a paper by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Corporate Responsibility Initiative entitled “Systems Leadership for Sustainable Development: Strategies for Achieving Systemic Change,” published in September 2019.
I was in tears seeing PYWP’s story in that Harvard paper. We were just six friends who felt the weight of so much pressure, frustration, and self-doubt asking each other: What are we doing here? Do we really have something to contribute? Are we on the right path? Now I know that as long as I am moving forward with my water sector allies — my fellow Systems Leaders — we’ll find the answers reflected in each other’s successes and struggles.
 Dreir, Nabarro, Nelson, “Systems Leadership for Sustainable Development: Strategies for Achieving Systemic Change,” 2020. Available here