This paper highlights and discusses ten characteristic attributes of emergent leaders (also known as 'champions') who worked as influential change agents within publicly managed, Australian water agencies to encourage more sustainable forms of urban water management. These attributes relate to: the 'openness to experience' personality characteristic; career mobility and work history demographics; personal and position power; strategic social networks; the culture of their organisations; and five distinguishing leadership behaviours (e.g. persisting under adversity). Guided by the findings of an international literature review, the author conducted a multiple case study involving six water agencies. This research identified attributes of these leaders that were typically strong and/or distinguishing compared to relevant control groups, as well as influential contextual factors. While it is widely acknowledged that these leaders play a critical role in the delivery of sustainable urban water management, there has been a paucity of context-sensitive research involving them. The research project highlighted in this paper is a response to this situation and has led to the development of a suite of 39 practical, evidence-based strategies to build leadership capacity throughout water agencies. Such capacity is one of the elements needed to drive the transition to more 'water sensitive cities'.