Utility Manager for the City of Wooster, Ohio, and 2018 Water Leadership Institute graduate Nathan Coey blogs about the WLI experience.

It has been nearly a year since a social media post started an awakening. It was a typical day, searching Twitter for inspiration in the form of a witty anecdotes or words of unshakable wisdom to share with my peers. A post from the Water Environment Federation caught my eye. The application period for the Water Leadership Institute was open, I knew I had to apply when the tag line read “Learning and Networking – Leadership for Life”. I am a sucker for leadership training opportunities and programs to build on career fundamentals. Plus networking is what this life is all about. There are no strangers to me.  

The opportunity to apply served as a relief with energizing hope. At the time of application, I was in need of encouragement. I was struggling in the mundane. I felt my career has plateaued. I felt my leadership role and visions has become stagnant. I felt my ideas were falling short with limited reserve. Starved for inspiration and direction, the Water Leadership Institute served as a catalyst for growth. I sent the application with the hope of return inspiration. When I received the acceptance letter in March, I felt a sense of renewal and inspiration. Frankly, I was honored to be considered to participate in this program.   

This program was certainly a source of encouragement in my continual development. This program was a catalyst for a personal awakening. I have always held the view point my work matters. The mission of clean water provides a service to the public every day. I take very seriously the solemn oath of public stewardship. The Water Leadership Program provided a refreshing perspective and encouragement. The acceptance into the program validated my passion and commitment. I was enamored with the idea I could share my passion with likeminded individuals.  

As a participant, I had the privilege of meeting with over 60 professionals from the industry with a focus on leadership. The first assignment was to read a book and complete a leadership skills assessment. Instead of focusing on where I feel I am weak, I was challenged to accept and fully utilize my strengths. For too long, I focused on my weaknesses and how to improve feelings of inadequacy. Previously, I felt my strengths did not always correlate in a technical field. However, the program encouraged me to embrace my strengths and focus on genuine leadership. Leading with impact begins with awareness of my strengths.   

The program curriculum was intentional in encouraging the examination of industry challenges with a resolve towards change. In my experience, public organizational focus is narrowly driven or what I call tunnel vision. It can be the pace of the work or the service provided, the focus is often internally to manage day to day. The Water Leadership Program provided intentional training to look outside of the box. For me, it was a refreshing experience to focus on emerging strategies, something that is lacking in the public sector. Discussion and presentations by professionals ranging in topics from entrepreneurship and innovation to resiliency and planning. I took a great deal of information from presentations and discussions with emerging data for future utility operation. This program provided an opportunity to learn about the future of the industry but also to look ahead for future opportunities applying the information gained. It is too easy to focus on past successes and fear a change that may contradict the established protocol. This program has encouraged me to embrace new technologies and we are writing the protocol for the future.  

The very heart of the program focuses on the greatest resource in the industry, PEOPLE. The daily mission of clean water is inspired work with public health as priority one. The industry remains focused on education, design, science, technology, and machinery that makes clean water possible. However, we often forget the public servants behind the scenes. I was reminded in this program that I am not alone. I was deeply encouraged by the great people I met on this journey. I met many brave people that have dealt with challenges unfamiliar to me. Their shared experiences opened my eyes and their fortitude to rise above was nothing short of inspirational. I have never felt the hot breath of oppression towards my age, race, gender, or anything else outside of resume bullet points. My resolve was to no longer ignore the reality of the bias around me.   

Unfortunately, the world right now is entrenched in a battle. It is one that is waged in futility because there is no desire for learning but to prove who is right and who is wrong. The unrelenting arguments revolve around the most prominent sides of any debate currently serve to increase the divide. The divide is as large as the Grand Canyon, a deep vast chasm. Entrenched on both sides are the supporters screaming at each other at the top of their lungs. Due to the distance, no one can hear what others are saying. Their throats become raw as they rage with indifference while the words fall to the bottom of the canyon before ears can even hear.  

Humans tend to align their allegiance to a particular side of cultural or political relevance. The decided side of the chasm becomes a master. Drawn to a collective goal or a definition of our individuality; either way a master is served. Words are used to convey the sensed passion. Words can be typed, words can be non-verbal, or we can scream until throats are raw with irrelevance. Words provided without reception likens to the adage, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound.  

I will never encourage a cessation of defining expression in the individual or global understanding. We need to invest in building bridges. Understanding and compassion forms a bridge to find common ground over the chasm of differing expression. Each individual has an opinion that defines individual reality. While standing at the chasm of the Grand Canyon, each will see the same view, but the interpretation varies in description. It moves differently in the individual.  

So therein lies the challenge. What if we value building a bridge more than shouting in vain across the chasm? We need bridge builders now more than ever. There will always be commentators reminding us of our difference. What if we say enough? What if we see humans more as allies than as adversaries? Standing face to face discussing what matters most, the once immense gap will diminish. Understanding is the footing, compassion is the support of the bridge, as we seek to understand what it means to be human. 

The great people I met through the WEF Water Leadership Institute are the “bridge builders” this world needs to see in action. Age, race, or creed did not matter, what mattered was our passion. The passion for kindness and understanding was a delightful focus and served as an awakening for me. Groups like this, collectively can provide solutions to build a world of understanding. I will never forget these folks and look forward to the bright future with these folks fulfilling their role in life.  

The Water Leadership Institute was a taste of the fruits of true character in action and deed. It reminded me of what the world looks like when we value individuals and the hope that comes with a new day’s dawn. I encourage you to apply for this program. You will be challenged, you will grow, and I hope it encourages an awakening you. This is one of the top highlights of my career to date and a great honor to be an alumnus of this program.  

All we have is right now to make a difference. Make it count with all the greatness you bring to the world! 

Godspeed bridge builders!


Nathan Coey, bottom right, with other Water Leadership Graduates

Blogger Nathan Coey, bottom right, with other Water Leadership Graduates.

The Water Leadership Institute program is aimed at educating, training, and providing opportunities that enable developing and emerging leaders to build strong lasting relationships within the water industry.

Learn More

Nathan Coey

Blogger Nathan CoeyGreetings, my name is Nathan Coey; feel free to call me Nate. I have been in the municipal water and wastewater field since 2002. I am certified by the Ohio EPA as a Class 4 Wastewater Operator and Class 3 Water Supply Operator and serve as the Utility Manager for the City of Wooster. This is hands down the greatest profession, and I’m enamored with serving in a capacity that directly positively impacts the citizens I serve. 

Explore Other WaterBlogs

The WEF WaterBlog covers a wide range of topics relevant to WEF, its Member Associations, and the water sector. Authors are invited to share their opinions1, experiences, and expertise.

Access the full list of
WEF WaterBlogs

1These blogs offer the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the organization.