The Secret Language of Leadership

Reviewed by: 
Stephen Denning
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

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In their review of the best business books of 2007, the Financial Times listed ‘The secret Language of Leadership’ in the top four and stated; “If business leaders do not immediately grasp the vital insights offered by this book, both they and their organisations are doomed.”
It is a good book, but in my opinion such gushing praise is completely over the top.  

Denning points out that in the past people generally lived and worked where they were born.  Workers in organisations therefore tended to share common beliefs and values, which made communication relatively straightforward.  Job options were more limited so workers tended to accede to the wishes of the organisation making top-down command and control approaches relatively effective.

In the modern age this has all changed.  Labour forces are much more mobile and the old doctrines of management are less applicable.  Today, employees need to be inspired to want to do, rather than be told what to do – they need to be led rather than managed.

The objective of the book is therefore to help leaders understand how to communicate in such a way as to inspire this desire in people.  To make the point Denning contrasts the approach of Al Gore in his failed presidential campaign in 2000 with his success in winning hearts and minds in 2006 with his film on the environment “An Inconvenient Truth”.  

In 2000 Al Gore adopted the approach typical of business communication.  He spoke of the role of the presidency in an abstract way, setting out numerous goals and objectives and detailing how he would set about improving the state of the nation.  The problem was that the economy was doing well, there was relatively full employment and therefore the electorate did not see the need for change – his message did not fit with their “model of the world”.

In 2006, Denning argues, Al Gore had learned the language of leadership.  He had learned that people think in stories, interpreting messages and information only in the context of their personal story.  You can only influence people therefore to the extent that you can create a new story in the mind of the listener.

Much of the book is given over to an explanation of what Denning calls “narrative intelligence” – the ability to describe things using stories, to understand the “stories” of the audience and to understand the impact your story will have on the minds of the audience.

As with many things in life this is nothing new – it has been known and understood by the advertising industry for many years, which is why they conduct focus groups to assess the impact of messages and images on different groups of people.  But for many of the leaders that began their careers by being taught to be managers, the idea that abstract concepts and narrative could be more influential than facts and figures in nothing short of rocket science!

Denning uses numerous examples to illustrate his various points and the book is written in the same narrative style that he advocates, making it eminently readable and very compelling.

It is therefore a book that I would strongly recommend to anyone who is interested in improving the effectiveness of their communication and influencing skills.

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