Shape the future of software delivery and make your voice heard by taking the 2021 State of DevOps survey.

DevOps culture: Transformational leadership

DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) research shows that effective leadership has a measurable, significant impact on software delivery outcomes. However, rather than driving these outcomes directly, effective transformational leaders influence software delivery performance by enabling the adoption of technical and product management capabilities and practices by practitioners, which in turn drives the outcomes leaders care about.

To study the role of leadership in DevOps transformations, DORA used a measure of transformational leadership that includes five dimensions. According to this model, validated in Dimensions of transformational leadership: Conceptual and empirical extensions (Rafferty, A. E., & Griffin, M. A.), the five characteristics of a transformational leader are the following:

  • Vision: Understands clearly where their team and the organization are going, and where they want the team to be in five years.
  • Inspirational communication: Says positive things about the team; says things that make employees proud to be a part of their organization; encourages people to see changing conditions as situations full of opportunities.
  • Intellectual stimulation: Challenges team members to think about old problems in new ways and to rethink some of their basic assumptions about their work; has ideas that force team members to rethink some things that they have never questioned before.
  • Supportive leadership: Considers others' personal feelings before acting; behaves in a manner which is thoughtful of others' personal needs; sees that the interests of team members are given due consideration.
  • Personal recognition: Commends team members when they do a better than average job; acknowledges improvement in quality of team members' work; personally compliments team members when they do outstanding work.

These five characteristics of transformational leadership are highly correlated with software delivery performance. In fact, DORA observed statistically significant differences in leadership characteristics between high-, medium- and low- performing software delivery teams (see the 2017 State of DevOps Report pp12-19). High-performing teams reported having leaders with the strongest behaviors across all dimensions. In contrast, low-performing teams reported the lowest levels of these leadership characteristics.

What was most striking, however, was that teams with the least transformative leaders (the bottom third) were also far less likely to be high performers at software delivery — in fact, they were half as likely to exhibit high software delivery performance. This validates common experience: Though there are many DevOps and technology transformation success stories emerging from the grassroots, it is far easier to achieve success when you have effective, transformational leadership.

Moving beyond correlation to look at how effective transformational leaders achieve results, the results are interesting. The DORA team created a predictive model using a technique called structural equation modeling to test the relationships between transformational leadership, a number of technical and product management practices, and software delivery and organizational performance. The validated model is shown in the following diagram. You can read the arrows as driving or impacting the capabilities and outcomes to which they point.

Flowchart shows impact of leadership on practices and performance.

The validated model shows that effective leaders impact software delivery and organizational performance indirectly, by enabling teams to adopt technical practices and lean product management practices. It is these practices that drive organizational outcomes such as higher software delivery performance and organizational performance. These capabilities also drive cultural change, as shown in the overall research program.

How to implement transformational leadership

Transformational leadership can be contrasted with transactional leadership, where employees are rewarded with money or prestige for complying with leadership instructions or punished for failing to follow them.

However, transformational leaders, according to Rafferty and Griffin, "motivate followers to achieve performance beyond expectations by transforming followers' attitudes, beliefs, and values as opposed to simply gaining compliance."

DORA's research found evidence that the presence of leaders with transformational characteristics is not enough to achieve high performance. Looking at teams whose leaders were in the top 10% in terms of transformational leadership, the research found that they were not the very highest performers. In fact, these teams displayed significant variation in levels of software delivery performance.

This result can be explained by the observation that leaders cannot achieve higher performance on their own. Success also depends on the implementation of effective technical, management, and product management practices, along with the other capabilities discussed in DORA's research. It's essential that the transformational leadership behaviors, described above, are directed towards the implementation of these capabilities.

Take vision as an example. One way to create a clear vision for a software delivery team is to set measurable relative goals for software delivery performance. For example Richard Herbert, CIO for Global Banking at Markets of HSBC, set every team the goal to "double the frequency of releases, half the number of low impact incidents, and quarter the number of high impact incidents."

There may be significant obstacles to achieving goals like the ones set by Richard Herbert. Again, leaders can use intellectual stimulation to help teams identify and remove obstacles to achieving higher performance. Perhaps team members believe that implementing continuous testing will help them, but they've tried before and failed. Leaders can ask teams questions such as: "Why did it fail last time?", "What lessons did you learn?", "What would you do differently this time?", "What ideas would you like to try this time?".

Personal recognition is also important, and must be directed such that it reinforces behaviors that help teams improve. Examples include trying experiments even if they don't work, or taking time to help other teams implement new ideas. Another example of effective personal recognition is e-commerce company Etsy, which at its annual engineering conference gives an award "to the engineer who inadvertently causes the most interesting or most learning-filled incident."

It's crucial that these behaviors are demonstrated consistently, and particularly when the team is under stress.

Finally, remember that leadership doesn't just mean executives and managers: anybody can be a leader. Almost all of these behaviors can be practiced by everybody in an organization. Consider how you can build them into your daily interactions with other people in your organization.

How to measure transformational leadership

Transformational leadership can be measured directly by asking team members about the extent to which they believe leaders exhibit the behaviors described.

The effects of transformational leadership are also measurable. For example, if a leader does an outstanding job of defining and communicating their vision, everybody in the organization should be able to describe that vision in a consistent way without having to look it up.

What's next