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October 25, 2022

Measuring Leadership: Why Leadership Styles and Behaviors Matter

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, and Steven Mayner.


Who are your leaders?

The answer to this question used to be obvious. Leaders were the individuals responsible for managing people. Often they were celebrated for being stern, appropriately distant, and swiftly decisive. The ability to command every situation with the deftness and authority of a silverback gorilla was a prize to attain. We are happy to share, those days are long gone.

Leadership in the twenty-first century has taken a turn for the better—a turn toward people. With this change, there is an increase in the prevalence and impact of informal leaders. These individuals are followed for their empathy and ability to empower others, rather than their title or placement on an org chart.

As more and more well-established companies find themselves undergoing transformation activities, it is critical that they also undertake a leadership revision. “Interesting, but why?” you may ask. The answer is simple: leadership styles foster culture, which will facilitate the adoption and sustainability of whatever your “new” is. As such, whether your transformation activities are focused on DevOps/Agility/Lean development, new customer-interaction channels, or something else entirely, the cultures (both macro and micro) your organizations are made up of will enhance or detract from your transformation. Taking a proactive approach will guide leadership behavior and a culture shift in a way that adds value rather than detracts.

The DevOps community has been talking for years about the intersection of people, processes, and technology; and how it takes all three to foster true and meaningful success. The notion of benchmarks and measuring progress with quantitative data is another well-embedded concept. While the world of technology has successfully demonstrated the collective ability to quantify processes, technological health, and tools, the art of measuring the human component remains elusive, especially regarding leadership.

“Okay,” you may be thinking. “That makes sense. But what makes a good leader, and how does one know if they are effectively cultivating a transformation culture?”

This question is not unique to our industry. There has been amazing work done by many, such as Dr. Ron Westrum and Admiral John Richardson. Yet, as technologists and transformation agents, we recognize that technology leadership is often lagging behind the change curve of the larger DevOps components. In an industry that is driven by innovation, data, iteration, and measurement, our hope in writing this paper is to help codify, or at least articulate, possible ways to measure leadership. This seems appropriate, especially in the context of a world engulfed by software logic and enamored with the recommended practices introduced in the DevOps model of The Three Ways (systems thinking, feedback loops, and continuous experimentation).

Why Leadership Styles and Behaviors Matter

Development and operations teams were the earliest adopters of DevOps as a more cross-functional and collaborative model to help build and deliver better software more quickly. DevOps had two benefits that impacted the influence of traditional bureaucratic and patriarchal leadership models. First, individuals were encouraged, incentivized, and often required to work across teams outside their reporting structure. Second, DevOps best practices encourage, and often require, a radical delegation of tasks and decisions. These are both benefits that weren’t found in legacy practices that previously dictated success for formal leaders.

In short, leadership behaviors need to shift and become more cross-functional and better distributed. The concept of radical delegation is increasingly important as companies and organizations continue to transform their operations and have their individuals and teams keep pace with the required pace of delivery and innovation. To help frame our discussion, we consider two particularly relevant sectors:

  • Big tech/Software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies: Historically, the release cadence of software was measured in years, so the ability to communicate decisions through five to ten layers of management was possible. In that environment, more control over decisions was expected. Today, releases are taking place monthly, weekly, or even multiple times a day—this cumbersome communication and decision-making process is ineffective and often gives leaner start-up companies the leading edge in the marketplace.
  • Fortune 100 financial services companies: In today’s world, many companies are having to become software companies; the complexity for those whose software tracks money requires an elevated form of security and confidence, not to mention the regulatory and compliance requirements that are in play. Release cadence is a factor, but the pressure and strain of serving internal constituents alongside a diverse mix of customers adds multiple levels of complexity. The need to rapidly consume information from multiple sources while keeping stakeholders engaged and delivering in faster, more viable iterations requires leadership that values fast collaboration and individual empowerment balanced with new levels of systems thinking and experimentation.

These examples impress the need for acknowledging, growing, and rewarding new leadership tactics and ideas. This increase in speed and lower-level authority needs to be implemented without adding chaos or losing sight of the organization’s larger goals.

Knowing that great leaders influence great outcomes, we honed our thoughts for this paper by looking at potential and tangible ways to measure leadership. We wanted to provide a guide on how to best grow those attributes continuously. As our discussion evolved, we focused on the fact that not all leaders manage people in organizations with formal reporting structures.

Now, more than ever, we see the increasing impact of informal leaders: the charismatic person people naturally listen to or want to be around; the social or technical magnet who people gravitate to and whose lead they follow. We realized these people are the carriers of culture, and as a result, they will be either the pillars upon which transformations are built or the weak beam that will cause a company to fail. Leadership, at its core, is a collective. It is the sum of influence that starts with one and spreads to many. This is the leadership of tomorrow, which we must start embracing more today.

In our next post, we’ll continue looking at Measuring Leadership through the lens of DevOps and digital transformation.

- 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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