The Secret Language of Leadership by Stephen Denning

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For the book report portion of our seminar, I chose to read The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action through Narrative by Stephen Denning. As I stated briefly during class yesterday, one of the reasons I chose this book is because it revolves so much around the power of narrative. I am extremely passionate about English literature and, as such, consider the impact of narrative structure and tone on how the reader (or “audience”) perceives the story. Both of these make a huge difference in the type of message delivered through a novel.

However, I had never considered the impact that narrative structure can have in daily life! We each have our own narrative methods–the way we tell stories to our friends and family, the way we present ourselves and our ideas to our bosses and co-workers, and even the way we deal with children to whom we want to convey a certain message. Denning presents many interesting ideas about how we can add to and/or alter our own narrative structures to make our points much clearer and more impactful.

Most of the book focuses on Denning’s ideas of storytelling and story listening. He states that in order to understand an audience, we first need to study them: their likes, dislikes, and what’s at the forefront of their thoughts. We need to ask the question: what is most impacting them right now? Then we need to ask: how can I work that into my narrative for the time when they’re my audience? Denning says that by telling stories the right way and grabbing the audience’s attention, the speaker can deliver their message in such a way that the audience will come to picture themselves as part of the change being spoken about. They come to see themselves as the protagonists of the story and the previous research of the speaker means that the audience can see some of their most relevant and pressing worries as the antagonist.

What I liked most about this book was its accessibility. The language and diction were clear and constructed in such a way that it felt less like he was commanding you to take his advice, and more like he was having a friendly conversation with you. This was especially appropriate given the fact that Denning places such importance on conversation, which he defines as a two-way street, not a one-way alley. Listed below are the fridge quotes I picked out, in order from the book:

  • “[Transformational leaders] change the world by generating enduring enthusiasm for a common cause…they don’t just generate followers: their followers themselves become leaders.”
  • “Successful leaders communicate very differently from the traditional, abstract approach to communication. In all kinds of settings, they communicate by following a hidden pattern: first, they get attention. Then, they stimulate desire, and only then do they reinforce with reasons…”
  • “The task here…[is] about enabling the people in the audience to see possibilities that they have hitherto missed. It means creating the capability in the audience to see for themselves the world and their relations with others in a new and more truthful light.”
  • “Conversation is person-to-person—not role-to-role. Conversation is conducted on the same level, one human being to another, not people acting out roles, saying what they’ve been told to say or what’s expected of them…” 
  • “The way for leaders to continue and accelerate enthusiastic implementation and deepen the relationship is by having regular, ongoing conversations with the people they are leading, about the things going on in their context and how they can address emerging threats or opportunities.”

    Above is a video of Stephen Denning talking about leadership and narrative communication. What do you think of his communication style? Does he get your attention, stimulate the desire to create change, and then reinforce it with reasons (his three communication principles)?