The Secret Language of Leadership
How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative
by Stephen Denning
ISBN: 0-7879-8789-1, Hardcover, 277 pages
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How do transformational leaders connect and engage with their audiences and inspire enduring enthusiasm for strange new ideas? In his exciting new book, The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative, (Jossey-Bass, October 2007, business narrative expert Steve Denning explains why traditional approaches to leadership communication don’t work and reveals the hidden patterns that effective leaders use to spark change. He shows how anyone can inspire enduring enthusiasm for a cause, even in skeptical, cynical or even hostile audiences and provides a comprehensive guide to the nitty-gritty of transformational leadership.
Sparking enduring enthusiasm for change is the principal and most difficult challenge faced by business communicators today. This presentation (and the book) is the first systematic account of how to go about it.
The book's lucid explanations, vivid examples and practical tips are essential reading for CEOs, managers, change agents, marketers, salespersons, brand managers, politicians, teachers, parents—anyone who is setting out to the change the world.
Financial Times Review
Let me tell you a story about Al Gore
By Stefan Stern: August 29, 2007
“If business leaders do not immediately grasp the vital insights offered by this book, both they and their organisations are doomed.
But the good news is that there are examples of executives out there who have taken this book’s messages to heart, and have acted successfully on them…
“This new book represents a considerable advance on the earlier work. The squirrels have been superseded by an intelligent and sustained analysis of the art of contemporary leadership. Those bosses who quietly despair of ever getting their people to change should spend a bit of time learning how to speak Denning’s ‘secret language.’
“One leader who does seem to have got the message is former US vice-president Al Gore. In a superb opening section, Denning takes Gore’s lousy presidential bid of 2000 apart, showing how at each stage the man of destiny from Tennessee blew his chances…
“Denning is a subtle and astute reader of audiences’ minds. Don’t try to out-reason deeply sceptical employees, he says. You have to make a personal – and emotional – connection with them first. Indeed, facts may be the last thing people want to hear right now. They will simply be discounted and rejected.
“Of course, there is still a need for reasoned arguments, he says, but it is crucial to get the “sequencing” of messages right. Get people’s attention, “stimulate the desire for change”, and then wheel out the rationale.
“`Leadership communications begin as monologue,’ Denning says. ‘If they are successful they turn into dialogue and then conversation. The conversation emerges because of the enduring enthusiasm for change that has been inspired.’
“Some business leaders may be sceptical about the need for language skills these days, but this “secret language of leadership” will reward further study.”
What's different about The Secret Language of Leadership?
For a very long time, we’ve been living with the idea that leadership and change are driven by the efforts of a few exceptional people. This book puts forward a different idea. It says that change and leadership don’t require exceptional people at all. Leadership and change are driven by ordinary people who act and speak in a different way. Once people grasp what's involved in acting and speaking in that way and take the trouble to master it, then they find that anyone can drive change, if they want to.
For too long, we’ve been thinking that leadership was some kind of innate gift, a mysterious kind of genetically inherited charisma. But once we’ve deciphered the language of leadership and understood its essential enabling conditions, transformational leadership is no longer a mystery. Once the hidden patterns of the language of leadership are made explicit, leadership becomes accessible to anyone. As Malcolm Gladwell has noted, the difference between generating resistance and enthusiasm is narrower than we imagine.
What's nice is this: when ordinary people have learned the language of leadership, they find they can have extraordinary impact.
Who needs this book?
Anyone who is trying to change the world, whether you're a CEO, a manager, a change agent trying to change your boss, a marketer, a salesperson, a brand manager, a politician, a teacher, a parent—anyone who looks out on the world and wants to do something to make it a better place. In fact, the only person for whom the book isn’t relevant is someone is totally complacent and happy with everything in the world, exactly as it is now.
The conventional wisdom: Pick up almost any leadership book these days and what do you find? Leadership is presented almost solely as an issue of inner conviction. Find the leader deep within yourself. Become the person others will want to follow. Discover your strengths. Become emotionally intelligent. Merely through increased self-awareness, self-regulation, and positive modeling, authentic leaders develop authenticity in followers. When you visualize, then you materialize. Be true to yourself and change happens.
Would it were so.
The reality: The reality is that sustained, enthusiastic change doesn’t occur by osmosis or extrasensory perception. If leaders’ inner commitment to change is to have any effect, they have to communicate it to the people they aspire to lead. True, the leaders’ actions will eventually speak louder than words, but in the short run, it’s what leaders say—or don’t say—that has the impact. The right words can have a galvanizing effect, generating enthusiasm, energy, momentum, and more, while the wrong words can undermine the best intentions and kill initiative on the spot, stone dead.
What are the main elements of the language of leadership? The central triad of every effective leadership communication involves a shift from the traditional approach of,
“describe problem >> analyze problem >> give solution”
to the new triad:
“get attention >> elicit desire >> reinforce with reasons”
The book shows:
18 ways to get your audience’s attention;
20 ways to elicit desire, and
8 ways to reinforce with reason;
It also explains which of these work best and why. The book tells you what other books on leadership never got round to revealing: what you have to say, and how to say it, so as to inspire enduring enthusiasm for your cause.
: The book introduces the concept of narrative intelligence. Narrative intelligence is an ability to understand and act and react agilely in the quicksilver world of interacting narratives.
The enabling conditions of the language of leadership
: The language of leadership will have the maximum impact if certain enabling conditions are in place. Without these enablers, the words that leaders use—the spoken language of leadership—risk sounding glib and superficial. The book identifies six enabling conditions:
An inspiring leadership goal:
Why isn’t winning likely to be a goal that inspires enthusiasm? What’s involved in crafting a goal that can inspire enthusiasm?
Committing to the goal
: The fox knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one thing. Transformational leaders are hedgehogs: of all the many things that could be accomplished in the world, they focus on a goal and pursue that with relentless intensity. The intensity of their belief in the goal is reflected in the stories they communicate.
The audience's story
: What’s involved in understanding your audience: Why are managers handicapped in having a real conversation with their subordinates? How do you go about determining what will—or will not—resonate with your audience.
: Why is this key to the central task of leadership? What are its dimensions? How can you measure it? What’s the difference between direct and indirect narrative and why does it matter? What are the relative strengths of abstract versus narrative modes of presentation? Of direct versus indirect modes of presentation?
: the body language of leadership: What are the essential basics of leadership presence, that turn ordinary presentations into the extraordinary? What’s the role of leadership online? Can written leadership communications inspire? What’s the appropriate role of PowerPoint in inspirational leadership?
The role of truthfulness in leadership
: Why is truthfulness an essential element in leadership? When does it make sense to shade the truth? Is it feasible in business to be fully truthful?
The book also covers:
The role of conversation in leadership
: Why has conversation become a hot leadership topic? How does conversation differ from an argument or a negotiation? How can managers facilitate conversation.
Leadership in the marketplace:
How do you move from making sales pitches to being a trusted adviser with whom clients want a long-term relationship? What behavior shifts are involved? How difficult is it?
Leadership in other spheres
: What’s the role of leadership in politics? Why are transformational leaders so rare in politics? What’s the role of inspirational leadership in teaching? In a family? How does it differ from leadership in an organization?
Want to read a chapter?
Chapter 1 in PDF format
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