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Description: The impact of a project often depends on the engagement of an individual in a position of leadership, or in simpler terms, a champion.
One example is the watersheds case in India, one of our deep-dive cases. There, the leadership came from a World Bank staff member, who took the initial findings and applied them to other projects. Much of the impact of the project can be traced to the work of that one person.
An example of the cost of lack of leadership comes from a PROFOR governance assessment in Laos. PROFOR sponsored a participatory governance assessment there in 2014. Although the assessment process went well and produced a potentially useful report, no one in the World Bank, civil society, or the national government has latched on to the report and championed it as a roadmap to reform. As a result, the impact of the assessment has been low.
Similarly, the Mexico benefit-sharing study offers lessons about the need for leadership. The Bank did not step up and invest in spreading the lessons of the study (largely because the next tranche of REDD+ funds did not materialize), and the government reorganized the key agency involved in the work, removing potential leaders who were familiar with the work. The resulting impact has been less than it could have been if there were champions in either institution.
Discussion: Knowing the importance of leadership, what can the World Bank, PROFOR, or funders do to encourage it? The watersheds case observed that the champion needed authority, flexibility to innovate, feedback, and a degree of independence. These are elements we should ensure are present for project staff.
These elements are necessary to create an opportunity to lead, but obviously, they alone are not enough. The Laos case suggests that the potential champion must be motivated. Motivation can come from personal interest or institutional interest. It ties into the issue of demand for the knowledge, which deserves its own consideration as an area of lessons learned.
A further factor is leadership ability. Thinkers going back at least to Aristotle have analyzed what makes leaders and what makes people persuasive. There are natural leaders, but some aspects of leadership can be taught, and perhaps it would be worthwhile to invest more in building the capacity of potential innovators and implementers to lead.