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Author's profile photo Achim Toeper

Don’t fly blind – 10|8 mindful leadership lessons for surviving transformation

Aircrafts flying around the world for 5 days and 5 nights without autopilot. Automated train systems allow city traffic to flow. Sophisticated software is providing sustainability for more than 40 years. Constant transformation and change delivered the insight into new possibilities which seemed inconceivable just a few years ago. The power behind: people. The drive: mindfulness and emotional intelligence. You may ask: Why? Simply because mindfulness is a superpower (1).


“There’s something called Monsoon” my boss said, when he called me, a few years ago. “Apparently, SAP is doing something innovative that enables them to deliver software and projects at higher speed and with amazing quality”, he said. My curiosity was stimulated, my quest was clear. As if the boss had ever been denied a wish. It was like a spark – my beginning of a wonderful journey: coming from a hesitating developer to an aware and grateful leader who tried to see more than just technology in IT and the SAP ecosystem.

Frankly, that also made me realize how much my will power and ability to first transform myself is fundamental. So, I dived into the world of agility and DevOps.

Let us take a look back: about 30 years ago, computer science was more streamlined, and more technology-based. Emotions were not necessary. Certificates were helpful and attending the courses was fundamental. Those who had the role of a developer learned to use Assembler, COBOL or even better C and those who started in the SAP ecosystem ended up working with ABAP.

Projects were performed according to the waterfall principle. There was a clear understanding of the role of each individual, strictly separated in departments. Unable to imagine, which new skills would be needed, to tear down organizational silos and support the cultural change within the colleagues.

The days when transformation and transition happened

Around the beginning of the new millennium, only a small swarm of courageous people dared to develop software with methods outside the mainstream. This newfound approach led long-standing projects and division managers to the brink of despair. The message sent to me and my colleagues was always called Agile + DevOps. They were not only convinced, they promised us that our software and projects became better, faster and smarter if driven by the agile methodologies of DevOps.

At that point I’ve been in IT for over 10 years and suddenly the control of project managers was about to be given up and the development teams gained maximum independence. OMG! What shock. It was not only me, also the biggest companies were forced to face the same issue.

Luckily, many of them have positioned themselves well. They didn’t hesitate to support their teams from the very beginning, initially also with agile coaches to create a supportive bridge for the upcoming change.

When SAP introduced the HANA database in 2010, followed by the launch of S/4HANA in 2015, titled by the slogan “run simple” – it was all supposed, to become less complex. However, the upcoming 10 years were to bring enormous restructuring and transformation processes for everyone in the IT environment and the SAP ecosystem. Besides the technical point of view, especially talking in terms of our mind-set.

How to survive in the Age of Continuous Change and Transformation

In the same way the Internet transformed our society, DevOps and agile software principles did and still lead to a transformation – for the established management and organizational structures. The ability of fast change, agile skills and lean thinking is now essential for survival. To go nuts!

Change is based on impulse – a strong and vibrating impulse, that makes us move and realize that change starts with action. For the IT environment and the SAP ecosystem this impulse surely was the launch of S/4HANA.

My insight was that I must first transform myself (Action) and fortunately yoga found its way to me at the end of 2015. It first needed a drastic impulse. But for my further learning steps this was ground-breaking. Many helped me on the path and gave me lessons to take along.

(Thankfulness). Gratefully – from the perspective of the student – each of the following brilliant people, regardless of age, taught me something by their remarkable personality and character.

People – Emotions – Abilities – Communities

What I’ve learned from all these people along my way and what inspired me the most, is not complicated. It can be outlined in 4 points:

  • IT is human,
  • Acceptance of emotions,
  • Adjusted Attitude
  • and Guidance

for the baseline.

IT is all about people

When investigating what SAP meant by “Monsoon”, Darren Hague was the first person who crossed my path with a compelling presentation (2), explaining SAP’s very own DevOps journey. In my eyes, DevOps only works, if all the people on board are involved and Darren simply put it in a nutshell: “IT’s about people”.

Lesson #1 IT is all about people-centered leadership.

If you follow in the footsteps of those at SAP who talk about DevOps in public, you inevitably end up with Dirk Lehmann, who is probably the most common publisher when it comes to the approach of DevOps in the SAP area. He points out to CALMS (Culture, Automation, Lean, Measurement, Sharing).

Lesson #2 The CALMS framework is the foundation of DevOps, in which culture and genuine trust provide the baseline for the transformation.                  

For more information about this fundamental topic, please read my blog – inspired by Dirk:

Marcus Raitner went beyond the first outlined concept of The Agile Manifesto, which claimed: “individuals and interaction are more important than processes and tools” 2001 (3). In the context of agile transformation, he answered the principles of leading in his Human Leadership Manifesto (Human). For more information about the mentioned agile coaches and Marcus Raitner’s delightful blog on human leadership where he shares his thoughts on how to “experience leadership”, please look here: 

Lesson #3 To lead a team through the VUCA world, lead like a yogi.

If you you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

Emotions are necessary and allowed

As I said, not only me but also the biggest players started to change, and I discovered that SAP is rolling out a program according to SIYLI (Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute). Tanja Schaettler, who I was honored to meet is one of the trainers. Engaged with the SAP community, I attended a SAP Inside Track event and took a look behind the scenes of the program, which teaches mindfulness and emotional intelligence in addition to the insights from neuroscience. It is precisely this area of knowledge where we learn a lot about how our mind can be trained and reprogrammed to become more stress resistant and focused.

Learn more about SIYLI in Tanja’s blog. . Interestingly, SIYLI is about closing your eyes and searching within yourself (e.g. by meditation).

Lesson #4 Search inside Yourself

Still curious and eager to learn, I attended a 2-day course on SIYLI, which was held by Mounira Latrache. I experienced how important authenticity and the ability to be emotionally intelligent are, as additional leadership qualities. But where do we start? We start with ourselves. With honest gratitude, and devotion, we are able to transform our point of view from “me” to “us”.

Leading your employees in an affectionate style means getting away from pressure and repression and getting into “their shoes” more often. This was part of the event and led to my recognition of …

Lesson #5 Compassionate Leadership – or how to get from the “me” to the “us”

No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.
(Theodore Roosevelt)

New skills on the block

Along so many outstanding and fascinating speakers, coaches and teachers Thea Schukken encouraged me on my journey. Obviously, when it to people and feelings, our emotional intelligence is considered to be vital. Furthermore, new skills addressing the end-user, are required.

A simple but significant illustration about leadership in transformation, created by Thea, led me to (what I call) the “security card” of an agile leader. Impressed by her skill to draw, she literally sketched my understanding.

Lesson #6 Visual facilitation

The point is not to be a talented artist. The key is to find a technique or method within yourself to let mindful communication speak in order to get into the other person’s world. With or without a pen.

Thanks to my co-production with Anne Johnson, author of the SAP Press publication “Design-Thinking with SAP” (4) and one of the recently appointed SAP champions, I was able to dive even deeper! The insight of our work conducted us to the following conclusion:

To succeed with Agile + DevOps it needs more than agile project methods, enriched by automation in the software and a lean mindset, but moreover …

Lesson #7 Agile project methods need also mindful thinking and communication accompanied by brainstorming, to find innovative solutions. Design-thinking!

One perfect example of such an innovative solution is FIORI, award-winning design by SAP. It uses simple inspiring and mindful user-interfaces to provide the end user with delightful and coherent screens. This is the way SAP achieves a mindful user-experience.

Be grateful for whatever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.    (Rumi)

You never walk alone

Yet, it felt like it, late in 2019. Busy as I was with preparing a webinar about testing of sustainable software , I did not have the happy feeling of being in an English football pub, listening to one of their Premier League club’s anthem. Too bad. Anyway, spending my last years with amazing and knowledgable people, I did feel guided by my network. And so it didn’t take long until I found one of three meaningful sign posts on my path. Clearly it gave me the signal while the sun kept shining on me for the whole time.

Kevin Tate, changed my perspective: me, coming from the sun of “hovering over the clouds”, I was taken to the other site. He took me deep underneath the surface of our physical world with his correlation to the coral reef ecosystem. And I did dive even deeper into the world of DevOps – in special the sustainability perspective of it.

Mindfulness and sustainability paved the way for business solutions. They provided the ability to optimize and modify software continuously. Kevin’s agile perspective supported me with the inspiration I needed, regarding my headline! I was fascinated by his blog title (9) and furthermore, I was guided to …

Lesson #8 Our community and ecosystem are driven by factors and enablers of change (from a transdisciplinary point of view – following neuroscience)

For a deeper look to sustainability, I recommend Kevin’s book on sustainable software development. Even after 15 years, his perspective is still relevant and software such as SAP ERP is based on his approach.

Talking about books, I don’t want to leave the authors Gene Kim (e.g. The Phoenix project) and Jez Humble with Dave Farley (5) unmentioned, as practical and entertaining companions within my journey. Their input helped me with my transition from being a phase-oriented developer to a DevOps communicator. These books guided me to …

Lesson #9 Read to learn the basics of a lean mind-set, agile alignment and story-telling.

End of last year – preparing a talk – I was fascinated by an airplane that flew around the world by photovoltaic energy (Solarimpulse2 mission of 2015/2016). It was piloted by André Borschberg and his partner. André’s longest leg from Nagoya to Hawai took him 5 days and 5 nights. He flew without the help of an autopilot. Instead André was equipped with excellent tools to stay on course: his pure will power, his five senses and his genius mind. 
Primed with ancient breathing techniques, asanas and meditation, he became his own observer, focussing on his route.

I knew that André was gifted by being trained of Sanjeev Bhanot, an experienced yoga teacher who I met years before. I instantly knew that these techniques and methods let him overcome the temperature differences, the lack of sleep and the lack of movement. This is where all his superpower came from and led to …

Lesson #10 Build up mental strength, develop a compelling vision – use your own excellent tools

When it’s time to search inside

We are highly visual creatures. Instantly, we observe our surroundings with our eyes. We are certain, about what we see. When it comes to story-telling sound and words gain of importance. Suddenly it’s an additional sense which activates our focus, this often let’s us change our common perspective.

Speaking of different perspectives, Sanjeev stepped into my world, a couple of years ago. And guess what: I didn’t see anything while I was lying on my mat, I was listening to his words and practicing a class on blindfold yoga given by him. My eyes covered, one sense off, we listened to our inner world and Sanjeev shared the story of the Solarimpulse2 mission.

I felt great excitement when Sanjeev told this story when he “decoded yoga” on the stage of TEDxZurich at the end of November 2019.  Sanjeev created a method which he calls Antastha. Anta and stha are from Sanskrit language and mean (anta =) the deepest
(stha =) place within.

To search within oneself when live becomes volatile, uncertain or ambiguous is my advice to mitigate the shocks of change and to survive. I thank Sanjeev most heartily for his insights and have summarized some of my rules of survival for you.

8 characters dedicated to you for continuous surviving of transformation

These days the horizontal eight is often used as a symbol for the DevOps toolchain.It points out the idea of continuity and infinity. Regarding to my title, 10 and 8 are connected by a pipe sign “|”, boosting your chance of survival, based on 8 important “safety card” superordinate concepts, when you are bumping into a transformation.

1. Attitude Begin with keeping an upbeat attitude (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
2. Network

Avoid leading by advancing yourself, advance your team
(adapted from John C. Maxwell)

3. Transformation

Clarify, that there is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly (adapted from Richard Buckminster Fuller)

4. Alignment Take a still moment everyday to check if you’re truly leading in aligment with your values
5. Sustainability Make sustainability part of your mission
6. Thankfulness Let an attitude of gratitude develop within you
7. Human Have the right people and listen to them (Lawrence Levy)
8. Action Let yourself be guided by a vision
(adapted from Jesse Lyn Stoner)

These simple 8 characters mentor us to ANTA (deep place) STHA (within). With the intention to remind you to hold still for a moment: close your eyes, breathe and calm down – this guideline supports you (not only) in times of anger, anxiety or misdirection.

Just go for it.

Why sometimes flying blind is relevant

“Don’t fly blind”, does not simply mean, to close your eyes and discard important visual information – for safety reasons. Further, it encourages you, to switch off the autopilot and to fly with all your senses! Get rid of old patterns and assumptions. Instead prime yourself with excellent methods and allow yourself to dive deep with an open mind and full of curiosity. Stay aware with all your senses to find the answer inside yourself.

“When sight is restricted, vision becomes clear” (7).

Shut your eyes from time to time to fly blind and seek inside yourself (search inside).The paths to cope with the obstacles connected with transformation will become crystal clear ahead of you.

Simply by integrating easy techniques, you can experience through mindful practice, how even team culture can benefit immediately. SAP provides several techniques to serve you as a guide (8).


Turn it ON again.


(1) Mindfulness is a Super Power – a video narrated by the wonderful Dan Harris.

(2) Darren Hague – Talk at #DOES16

(3) The agile manifesto:

(4) Anne Johnson, Design-Thinking:

(5) e.g. Continuous Delivery – Book by Jez Humble und David (Dave) Farley

(7) (different Authors): When sight is restricted, vision becomes clear.


(9) Kevin Tate Blog: “Don’t fly blind”

Special Thanks:

  1. Mounira Latrache: For your infectious smile and your uncompromising authenticity.
  2. Sanjeev Bhanot:    For your heartwarming and inspiring talk “Decoding Yoga” at TEDxZurich s.a.


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