Transformational leadership: DevOps cannot succeed without it

Here, Marianne Calder, vice president EMEA, Puppet, explores the opportunities DevOps can offer in your business.

If anyone is still unsure of how important IT leadership is, they ought to consider the following statement: By 2020, half the CIOs that have not transformed the capabilities of their teams will be removed from their digital leadership teams. Why? Because leadership has a tangible effect on results. A good leader influences a team to architect good systems or apply principles to the way the team works and develops products – all of which have a measurable impact on the productivity, profitability, efficiency and customer satisfaction of a business.

A good leader will support a team’s willingness to experiment and innovate, establish and support the business’ cultural norms and implement technologies and processes to enable developer productivity.

Most businesses recognise engaged leaders are essential for a successful DevOps culture, but the DevOps community has been guilty of maligning leadership – in other words, having middle managers who prevent or delay the changes necessary for the business to improve its IT and organisational performance, hindering its success. It is important to have the right leaders, with the right attitudes, directing the business. Leaders typically have the authority and budget to make the large-scale changes needed to support a business’ DevOps transformation – set the tone of the organisation, reinforce desired cultural norms and provide visible support when the transformation is under way.

Recognising the right kind of leader

While there are stories of grassroots DevOps success, it is far easier to achieve success when there are effective leaders supporting the team. This is where the role of transformational leadership lends itself.

Transformational leadership is a model which sees leaders inspire and motivate their teams to achieve higher performance by appealing to their values and sense of purpose. In doing so, it facilitates wide-scale organisational change. The model is essential for:

  • Establishing and supporting generative and high-trust cultural norms.
  • Implementing technologies and processes that enable developer productivity, reducing code deployment lead times and supporting more reliable infrastructures.
  • Supporting team experimentation and innovation, to create and implement better products faster.
  • Working across organisational silos to achieve strategic alignment.

Leaders encourage their teams to work towards a common goal through their vision, values, communication, example-setting and evident caring about the team’s personal needs. Transformational leaders help the team to identify with the needs and objectives of the organisation. According to Rafferty and Griffin’s ‘Dimensions of transformational leadership’, these leaders have five specific characteristics.

  • Vision – a clear and comprehensive understanding of the organisation and team direction.
  • Intellectual Stimulation – challenging the status quo and pushing the team to constantly ask new questions.
  • Inspirational communication – inspiring through passion, motivation and taking pride in the work.
  • Supportive leadership – consideration of personal needs and interests before taking action.
  • Personal recognition – commending, acknowledging and complementing quality work.

The characteristics of transformational leadership are highly correlated with IT performance. High-performing teams usually have leaders with the strongest behaviours across all dimensions: vision, inspirational communication, intellectual stimulation, supportive leadership, and personal recognition. A transformational leader’s influence is seen in their support of the team’s work, in technical practices and in the team’s product management capabilities. The positive (or negative) influence of leadership flows all the way through to IT performance and organisational performance.

The foundation for success

DevOps is becoming an important philosophy of forward-looking executives that acknowledge the link between DevOps and high organisational performance. Because DevOps is more about culture and processes than technology, management on all levels needs to understand what it means to adopt DevOps practices.

DevOps is not something a company can practice or buy. It is a culture where continuous questioning, experimenting and learning is a part of everyone’s day-to-day activities. Transformational leadership builds the core foundation for this culture to thrive – a culture where it is everyone’s job to challenge the status quo, continually bettering the organisation, its developments and practices.

Success in DevOps depends just as much on a suitable architecture, good technical practices and use of lean management principles.

Leaders cannot achieve DevOps outcomes on their own but good leaders help build great teams, great technology, and great organisations indirectly, by enabling teams to re-architect their systems and implement continuous delivery and lean management practices. Transformational leadership enables the practices that deliver high performance and it supports effective communication and collaboration between team members in pursuit of organisational goals. It provides the foundation for a culture in which continuous experimentation and learning is part of everybody’s daily work.

Marianne Calder, vice president EMEA, Puppet

Owen Gough

Owen Gough

Owen Gough is a reporter for He has a background in small business marketing strategies and is responsible for writing content on subjects ranging from small business finance to technology...

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