A Story of DevOps >> Episode 3. Freedom… (Leadership)

A Story of DevOps >> Episode 3. Freedom… (Leadership)

This is becoming a team effort. Rachel, my wife, has started to proof read my material before I publish. Rachel and I make a great partnership and the quality of these articles is improving – I just need to make them shorter! This article is about Leadership and builds upon the Origins and One Ring articles previously published.


We all know of great leaders who have inspired significant change. Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Winston Churchill, Moses, Alex Ferguson, William Wallace, Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt, Elon Musk, Richard Branson are a few examples amongst many others that have impacted the history of the world. Some have changed the way we live, transformed lives, entertained us and some have delivered freedom to countless many.


I am sure that many of you have been on leadership courses, read books on how to become an effective leader, attended seminars on leading high performance teams and delivering business transformation, performed self assessments and psychometric evaluations of yourself – all with an aim to leading change. I am not against any of these and am a firm believer in education and learning. In Lean Start Up, Reis suggests that the rate of organisational learning predicates business performance. However, there is more to being a great leader than a little self improvement.

"The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else." Eric Reis, Lean Startup

All In Leadership

Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, conducted a review of 1,435 companies over 40 years, he found 11 great companies which he examined- their leaders and organisational culture. I am not going to re-write what he found as he has already written a book and a summary article (which I highly recommend you read).

What he found from a leadership perspective is that great leaders have 2 characteristics in common; personal humility and ferocious resolve. He called this Level 5 leadership where the 5 levels of leadership are:


This union of humility and will in Level 5 Leadership has also been referred to as servant leadership which is a common phrase in Agile. In fact, DeMarco and Lister in their book, Peopleware (first published in 1985), states that Leadership is a Service whose role is to maximise the productivity of the knowledge worker through managing them properly (and differently to manual workers), providing the right environment, hiring the right people, growing self-healing, self-organising, productive teams and through nurturing an environment of fun.

Collin’s does not attempt to lay out a set of steps to becoming a Level 5 Leader; he just describes who they are and what they do which includes:

  • Finding the right people first (even before the vision is set!)
  • Confronting the brutal facts, through enabling a climate where truth is heard and where leaders care personally and challenged people directly (Radical Candor, Scott). In the face of adversity, it is the Leader’s unwavering faith amid the brutal facts that prevails.
  • Focus on being the ‘hedgehog’; the work that you are deeply passionate about, can do best in the world and drives your economic engine.
  • Build a culture of discipline; where a culture of freedom and responsibility is nurtured by self-disciplined people, in the absence of tyranny whilst being focussed on their ‘hedgehog’ concept.
  • Accelerate with technology; where technology is an accelerator not a creator of momentum.
  • Build up and breakthrough with the Flywheel Effect

The unique combination of ferocious resolve and personal humility is what makes a ‘Great Leader’. More information can be found in the book Good to Great.


We all understand that we need to change. But change takes time and for many of us, time is not a luxury we readily have. Sometimes, even with time, we don’t have the discipline to change – after all, we have over a century’s worth of beliefs, values and patterns woven into our fabric. Some of these concepts require change at our very core. According to Jamil Qureshi, Performance Coach, we need to think, then feel and then act.

I am not claiming to be a Level 5 Leader but I knew I had to change and I needed time. I used to arrive at work most days at 07:30 and leave after 18:00 – I spent the first hour preparing for the day and catching up on those dreaded emails. If I needed to do any actions picked up in various meetings, they happened during this time (there is a whole section in Peopleware just on the craziness of this). The rest of the day tended to be consumed by back-to-back meetings – lunch, coffee and other human necessities, these were fitted in-between meetings where possible – often resulting in meetings starting late. The meetings in the day tended to be reviews of what happened, responding to escalations and planning for activities in the immediate future. I had no time to change – in fact, I would monitor emails in the evenings and weekends and often did catch-up/planning at the weekends. – Does this sound similar? Open your calendar – are you back-to-back? How much of that calendar is reactive or managing the past or escalations? What percentages of your time are associated with ‘plan’, ‘do’, ‘check’ and ‘act’? We have become programmed to reacting, escalating and monitoring.

As a leader, should we not be spending more time planning for the future? Are you there to think and lead or babysit? There was no way I was going to change myself and the business with the patterns and behaviours I had. Things needed to change.

Firstly, my sponsor released me from the broad portfolio of services I was responsible for and I was allowed to focus on 4 Enterprise Products (Successfactor, ServiceNow, SAP and O365). However, I was no longer just responsible for service, I was now responsible for the Product; design, build and support. All of a sudden my diary got filled up again and nothing was different. I had read the Phoenix Project and now I had four teams but we still had all the same behaviours, practices and results.

I started reading more, wherever and whenever I could. My phone became my book. I soon discovered Audible and listened to books on my daily commute to and from work. I read The GoalLean Start UpStart with WhyHow Google WorksPeoplewareElon MuskThe Everything StoreRadical CandorScrum,The Toyota Way, etc. I then took a good look at my diary and made some dramatic changes – I built in sacred ‘work’ time into my diary. I had to give more responsibility to my first line and trust them.

This was not easy; I felt vulnerable as I was not ‘on top’ of everything. I had to learn to trust. I had to take all my new learning, plan what I was going to do and then do it. Things got worse – service performance was not great, projects were failing. This DevOps thing was not working. Agile was really hard – I was nervous, vulnerable and failing. How many times did I revert back to my old behaviours? How many times did I nearly call it a day?

Things did, have and are continuing to improve. I am re-reading ‘Good to Great’ now and in retrospect I can see the hints of some of the principles applied in our Product Teams, here is a short perspective – I’ll dwell on these a bit more in future articles:

  • First who, then what: We built teams with the right people, who were (or became) passionate about their product.
  • Confront the brutal facts: We knew that big infrequent releases did not work, we needed to do less transformational and more routine change – the base principles of delivering IT services had to change.
  • Hedgehog; Our teams were built around Products so each team were able to focus on their passion, what they could be the best at and had measures to demonstrate value.
  • Culture of discipline: we established new practices and routines and allowed the our self-organising teams to master these with both freedom and responsibility.
  • Technology Accelerators: We started with the good old whiteboard and post it notes – probably the two most powerful tools in the world. However, as we grew, we adopted tools that help make workflow and workload visible and have started to invest in automated testing. We saw improvement before the tools but the ‘right‘ tools help acceleration once the principles are in place.
  • Flywheel Effect: With practice and repetition, the teams accelerated and the results have been outstanding. You can read more in “A Story of DevOps“.

The message here is that, as leaders, we need to change – we need to read and learn and we need to create time – time away from all the reactive work to think, feel and act – Our productivity as leaders matters! We then need the belief and resolve to persevere, even when everything goes the wrong way (Confront the Brutal Facts, Good to Great). One day my sponsor asked what I needed; I could have said more staff, or funding, or automation – my reply was… time. I’d seen some small improvements and believed in what we were doing and more importantly, why we were doing it and I had confidence in my teams and the wider environment. The “why” is so important – there is a great video below on how great leaders inspire action and it starts with asking why and founded on the motivation of the leader.

Leadership is critical and you need to reflect on your motivation to change, understand the characteristics of a Level 5 Leader and then create the space and time for you to change and inspire change. A clear vision and great leaders are the cornerstones great businesses are built on.

If you are a leader, there may a way of taking yourself out of the reactive rat race, there are characteristics you can develop that may help you become a better leader who gets the best out of your teams and ultimately you could help your organisation go from Good to Great…

This will provide a freedom from the bondage of reactive work, a freedom that enables your employess be the best they can be, ultimately resulting in freedom from ‘Good’, the enemy of ‘Great’.

"Fight and you may die. Run and you will live, at least awhile. And dying in your bed many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here as young men and tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they will never take our freedom!" William Wallace, Braveheart

More from this series:

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