I recently read Phil Thompson’s great post around the value of story telling ‘Story telling in a business context’.  Reading it called to mind my favorite DevOps leadership story, but in a cautionary note Phil also talks about the dilemma of creating a tale to suit one’s own point.  He recommends a subtle caveat such as “It’s like that story where….”.  As it is so hard to authenticate tales from the past I’ll take that recommendation:  It’s like a story of daring do in the hay day of the industrial revolution…

The Avon Gorge in Bristol is a wide one and half-mile long valley cutting through craggy limestone on the edge of the city, in places it is almost a hundred metres deep. In the 1800’s engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel was commissioned to build a suspension bridge across it, the chosen location was no less than seventy five metres high. Already the commission doubted Brunel’s calculations, forcing him to build two massive piers to narrow the span to two hundred and fourteen metres. Huge towers where constructed on either side of the river then ropes were strung across the gorge, followed by cables. After building sufficient strength, the plan was simple; a basket could be hung from an iron bar, allowing workers to cross with more cables and equipment. This approach would save long, expensive boat and land trips from side to side.

Everything went to plan until someone was needed to pilot the basket across the windy gorge. This was a time when trades had little protection, there were high injury rates, and workers were almost considered expendable. So when the work force were concerned about the safety of the basket, who took the job? It was Brunel himself. He made the first crossing, showing utmost faith in the design and trades that built it. In so doing Brunel set an example, demonstrated commitment, and earned the trust of the people he worked with.

I like this story, because it demonstrates the bold steps leaders (by which I mean anyone wishing to inspire or encourage, regardless of role or title) may take to gain support for new ideas and ways of working. This is particularly true of DevOps, Agile, Lean and similar learning methods – at first they might look different, maybe even as precarious as Brunel’s basket, but there are significant benefits to be found. Teams united by a purpose, and principles, are likely to discover those benefits, and learn, quicker than teams that are divided or fearful of change. Visible acts of leadership, and the stories that follow them, are as powerful now as they were hundreds of years ago.