DevOpsDays Boston was this week and it was great. I took part in a breakout session about leadership in DevOps and it really got me thinking. I mentioned the breakout session in the BosOps chatroom and there was some interest in hearing more about it, so I thought I’d put a blog post together. The official topic was along the lines of “identifying and developing leadership in DevOps.” There were about 20 people in the session; almost all managers or leadership types.

Leadership != Management

The discussion quickly drifted away from leadership and towards management. This was pretty telling; a group of leaders couldn’t naturally converge on what leadership actually meant! In my experience, when people talk about leadership, they rarely define it. People seem to have a sentimental attitude towards leadership. Leaders often inspire and motivate people, evoking very strong emotions.

Management is less about leadership and more about organizations. I would argue that management is less about leading and more about following, but that’s a discussion for another day. Managers (especially in agile organizations) are resource schedulers. Their mission is to achieve the most efficient allocation of resources (time, people, money) as defined by the business. Just look at the core curriculum for a management degree: accounting, finance, economics, marketing–all geared towards teaching people how to achieve business objectives by allocating resources.

Oftentimes the best managers are also leaders, but it’s important to note that leadership is not the same skill set as management. Even more importantly, you can be a leader without being a manager, and vice versa. After floundering for a bit we tried to refocus the discussion on leadership and proposed that we try and define what leadership actually means. A theme quickly emerged on this topic: empathy.

It’s all about that empathy, that empathy

We enumerated several skills that had a common theme: effective communication, situational awareness, good listening, emotional intelligence, consensus building, diplomacy, big-picture thinking. All of these skills speak to one very important leadership quality: empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand the experiences of others; to empathize with someone is to put yourself in their shoes. Sympathy, on the other hand, is feeling sorry for someone. They are often confused, but knowing the difference is important. Sympathizing with someone is quick and easy, empathizing requires more time and deliberation. Sympathy is useful to signal to another that you care about them, but doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re interested in what they’re feeling.

By empathizing with others, we become better equipped to solve problems that transcend our own problem domain–we become invested in the success of others. Empathy is key to bringing groups with disparate experiences together. Leaders demonstrate empathy out of sheer necessity. It’s impossible to lead others when you don’t understand their challenges, experiences, and concerns. Empathy makes finding common ground, motivating others, and building consensus easier. In short, empathy begets action.

Empathy is really the essence of DevOps. DevOps needs leaders to be successful. I have no data to prove it, but I doubt any successful implementation of DevOps has happened absent an abundance of leaders on both sides.

Leadership and power

The conversation quickly turned towards a discussion of leadership and power. We talked about some of the different kinds of power: legitimate, expert, and referent. Legitimate power is based on one’s position in an organization: a manager has legitimate power over his reports. Referent power is based on the ability to command loyalty: charismatic leaders can garner referent power by inspiring others to follow them. Expert power is based on one’s mastery of a sought-after skill set: an experienced engineer possesses expert power when other engineers rely on her to drive the technical direction of a project.

Legitimate power is not necessary for leadership. People who say they need legitimate power to lead are sorely mistaken and are not the type of leaders you want to hire or work for. Leaders focus on referent and expert power; they focus their energy on fostering relationships and building consensus. The exact manifestation of these things vary widely based on the organization, but a leader should be able to acquire power regardless of their position in the organization. The ability to acquire power without position is a key indicator of leadership. As a result, leaders often bubble to the surface.

Growing leaders

We learned very quickly that DevOps is not something you can buy. You have to grow the skills necessary to make DevOps successful. This means growing leaders. The group discussed the importance of giving people the opportunity to lead. When you identify someone as a potential leader, it’s important to give them a safe space to experiment with leadership. Give them a project that would afford them the opportunity to show some leadership. The key is to provide clear, concise, actionable feedback continuously throughout the process.