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October 26, 2022

Measuring Leadership: DevOps, Transformation, and Leadership

By IT Revolution

This post is adapted from the 2022 DevOps Enterprise Forum guidance paper Measuring Leadership by Adam Zimman, Lee Barnett, Julia Harrison, Tamara Ledbetter, Dean Leffingwell, Christof Leng, Steven Mayner.


In our last post, we began to look at leadership styles. Now let’s turn to leadership and DevOps.

An enhanced focus on leadership and adopting the Three Ways has been a central theme of DevOps since the first publication of The Phoenix Project in 2013. Dr. Steve Mayner focused attention on the topic when speaking about transformational leadership at DevOps Enterprise Summit events in London and the US from 2016 to 2019. The 2017 State of DevOps Report included research on transformational leadership conducted by the DevOps research and assessment (DORA) organization surveying 3,200 IT professionals and executives. The results showed:

  • Transformational leadership is highly correlated with IT performance.
  • High-performing teams consistently reported having leaders with the strongest transformational-leadership behaviors.
  • The lowest-performing teams had leaders with low scores in these behaviors.
  • Transformational leadership was highly correlated with employee Net Promoter Scores (eNPS).

In 2018, the lead researcher at DORA, Dr. Nicole Forsgren (along with Jez Humble and Gene Kim), published many of these findings in their book Accelerate: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations. In the chapter on leaders and managers, Dr. Forsgren highlights the critical role that leaders play in any technology transformation. The behaviors promoted by transformational leadership directly contribute to creating the generative, performance-oriented culture described throughout Accelerate as being a critical factor for effective DevOps adoption.

To be clear, transformational leadership is not a new concept—it was pioneered by James Burns in the 1970s. In his writings, Burns promoted a cooperative relationship between leaders and followers: working together to innovate and implement change to achieve an inspiring vision. We’ve all likely experienced both great and ineffective leadership throughout our careers. Leaders who have been assessed for results over styles are likely rewarded for both. The difference is in how these leaders obtain results.

Leaders exhibiting transformational leadership behaviors inspire followers through their vision, authenticity, care, and a commitment to follower achievement, instead of a win-at-any-cost approach that views people as merely another commodity. Burns’s definition of transformational leadership included behaviors found in other models that are often sought after today, including servant leadership and charismatic leadership. Burns named specific behaviors that lead to greater innovation and organizational performance—amazing given the forty-plus years since his work was released and the slow shift to adopt his findings in many industries.

Over the past four-plus decades, other researchers have continued Burns’s research. More published research has been conducted on transformational leadership behaviors than on all other leadership theories combined. While the most prolific of these researchers have been Bernard Bass, Bruce Avolio, and Ronald Riggio, the model of transformational leadership created by A. E. Rafferty and M. A. Griffin used in Accelerate is a slightly more outcome-focused example of this ongoing research. Table 1 compares Rafferty and Griffin’s dimensions of transformational leadership described in Accelerate to the original works of Burns, Bass, and others.

Given this, we have a clear understanding of what transformational leadership is. However, these studies and frameworks mostly focus on the idea that the “leader” is a manager of people or is a person with formal responsibility.

Burns, Bass, Avolio, RiggioRafferty and Griffin (Accelerate)
Inspirational motivation (IM)Vision & Inspirational communication
Idealized influence (II)(no equivalent)
Individualized consideration (IC)Supportive leadership
(no equivalent)Personal recognition
Intellectual stimulation (IS)Intellectual stimulation

Table 1: Comparison of Transformational Leadership Studies

Before diving into how these traits correlate to informal leaders, in our next post we will look at how global conditions have impacted the roles and challenges of leadership since the time these ideas were first connected with DevOps in Accelerate in 2014.

- About The Authors
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IT Revolution

Trusted by technology leaders worldwide. Since publishing The Phoenix Project in 2013, and launching DevOps Enterprise Summit in 2014, we’ve been assembling guidance from industry experts and top practitioners.

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