The Secret Language Of Leadership Analysis Commerce Essay


This report will give a critical analysis on the book "The secret language of leadership" written by Stephen Denning. It is our final assignment for the "Leadership: organizations and teams." course in which we discussed several leadership theories and cases.

The report has a clear structure. First of all, we will give background information about the author and the organization he worked for. His background has a great influence on the vision in his book: inspiring action for change through storytelling. We will give a short analysis of his story in the preface.

Stephen (Steve) Denning was born in Sydney, Australia. After having studied law and psychology, he started to work in a corporate law office while pursuing a law degree. In that period, the sudden death of his brother and especially his mother's reaction changed his vision on social justice and lawyers. While searching for a new calling, he finished his PhD degree in law. He heard that there was a job available at the World Bank. Since the World Bank fitted in his new vision, he applied for the job.

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He fulfilled several management positions in this organization. An important turn in his career occurred in 1996, when he was told that his job was no longer available and he could 'go into information'. Positions in this area were not yet fulfilled and this has become an easy way to lay him off. During his stay in Lausanne for a management program he had time to reconsider his career options.

Because of the fit of the World Bank with his vision and his personal interest for computers, he decided to stay in the organization. Denning strongly believed that knowledge management and information sharing should become one of the main activities. Managers were resistant to implement his ideas, when suddenly an unexpected event had happened and changed their minds. Denning developed a presentation on his ideas for the skeptical senior management of the World Bank. It has become the immediate cause of writing 'The secret language of leadership'. He found a way to change the World Bank's vision of knowledge management, the effect of which has later become visible throughout the organization.

In 2000, Denning was considered to be one of the 10 most admired knowledge leaders in the world, according to Teleos. In the same year, Denning decided to leave the World Bank in order to devote his life to sharing his vision on the influence of storytelling. Denning reached a greater audience by publishing five books including 'The secret language of leadership', organizing seminars, and giving presentations and workshops.

The World Bank

The World Bank is an organization with one primary objective: relieving world poverty. Established in 1944, the World Bank has become a lending institution for financing developing countries. Denning stated that he had a great influence on the main activities and the culture of the World Bank. The World Bank has indeed changed since his inspiring action for knowledge management.

Before 1996, the World Bank had one main activity: lending money to underdeveloped countries. Experts did not share their knowledge in the organization. Denning thought that the organization could better reach its objective by making this knowledge publicly available. For this reason he implemented a knowledge system with the help of many colleagues.

Knowledge management became one of the six main activities in the World Bank. Moreover, exchanging knowledge was internally and externally recognized. The World Bank has set up World Bank Public Information Centers and expert information became available accessed online.

Denning's story

A short analysis of the preface of the book will be given, because Denning starts with his own leadership story in change management. It is a good example of story telling and an application of his theories.

Denning mentions that stories should fit to the subject matter of change in order to have an impact on the audience. The story in the preface describes Denning's own successful experience in changing the World Bank.

In his book Denning states: "As the director of the Africa Region, I needed to see him because that curious thing known as "my career" had just then taken a turn for the worse" (Denning, 2007, vii). In this example, the author starts with a negative personal experience to get the reader's attention. He keeps the attention, by explaining the reasons and the consequences of his meeting in the next paragraphs.

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According to Denning, one of the key characteristics of a transformational leader is the ability to tell stories. The author surely has this characteristic, since he continuously surprises and captivates the reader. One example is: "After that much experience as an executive, I believed that I understood management, although I was about to discover that I had much to learn about leadership" (Denning, 2007, vii). Normally, this promising sentence would be followed by an explanation, but Denning jumps to an entirely different subject to startle the reader.

Throughout the story, Denning makes the reader to use his imagination. He does not describe situations in detail and uses many metaphors. One typical example is the following set of phrases: "The message was unmistakable: I was being sent to Siberia. Although the interview was bad news, the imperial style of delivery was something else. The managing director gazed on me as though he'd just swatted a fly" (Denning, 2007, viii).

Though we can find more examples of the greatness of his story telling in the preface, we would like to focus on the main part of the book. Unfortunately, Denning does not use his ability to tell stories for these chapters. The rest of the book becomes, therefore, less interesting and harder to read. To put it in Denning's terms, the reader's attention is lost in the second part. The following chapters of the report will contain a critical analysis of the subjects that Denning discusses in part two of "The secret language of leadership".

The importance of an inspiring goal

The author stresses the importance of a single and focused goal in order to convince people to adopt the leader's idea. One of the key concepts related to this special goal is that it must generate sustained enthusiasm - when the motivation required to perform tasks is related neither to external goods nor to the achievement of 'instrumental goods'. If the leader's goal is strong enough and if he succeeds in conveying the goal as a worthwhile purpose and cause that must be 'pursued for its own sake', then the activities related to this goal will create such enthusiasm.

2.1 Sustained enthusiasm

He depicts the concept of sustained enthusiasm pointing four characteristics of activities that can be intrinsically motivating, according to the following:

Figure 1 The four characteristics of activities that provide sustained enthusiasm

In addition to creating enduring enthusiasm, the successful transformational leader will solidify an idea that is larger than the organization or short-term objectives. In this sense, the examples mentioned are Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs, who all succeed in creating an idea that turned to be independent of any organization and of the leaders themselves. As in the other parts of the book, the message and ideas are exemplified with short histories from companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Toyota and Johnson & Johnson.

2.2 Examples unexplained

Although the stories might be relevant in the context of the subjects being discussed, they are not useful to help the reader understand the strategies adopted by the leader or company in order to create and solidify a vision. It would be valuable if the author provided in-depth analysis of at least one case. Indeed, the stories are appealing and eventually catch the attention of the reader, but they are not strong or comprehensive enough to prove the underlying theory or concept.

How to guarantee commitment to the goal

It is highlighted that a successful goal requires commitment from the leader and stakeholders. The story to illustrate this is the comparison of Abraham Lincoln's speech before and one year after being elected, related to slavery in the United States. The change was from the rational politician, who "justified his actions on instrumental, legal grounds" to a passionate and future-oriented leader, "based on moral grounds, something worthwhile in itself". (Denning, 2007, 66).

Despite introducing the subject with Lincoln's story, there is a detailed discussion confronting the roles of politicians and leaders. The author argues that for many reasons why a successful politician (in the sense of maintaining power) will never become a transformational leader. According to the author, the thriving politician needs to be "well-armed" (with financial resources), willing to "play hardball", "flexible" (breaking campaign promises, for example), and, mainly, he or she will be "ambiguous about their commitment to change".

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The next role whose leadership position is scrutinized is the CEO, or the manager in general. The narrative now is about Alan Klapmeier, who co-founded Cirrus Design, and the challenge to convince his shareholders of a new aircraft panel, which in the beginning was thought to be high-risk investment with very low chances of hitting the market and turned out to be a commercial success.

It is worth noting the author once again does not give details on how this particular CEO managed to convince the shareholders on investing in the new products. Were new marketing or engineering studies presented? Were there any changes in external factors such as competition and regulations? The outcome is presented simply as "in due course, Klapmeier convinced his board of directors".

The next point of discussion regards the differences at introducing change or innovation in publicly owned corporations and private owned ones. As one might expect, leaders working for publicly owned companies would face more trouble when trying to change the status quo, because the pressure for profitability is fierce and profitability is the ultimate goal.

Communication with the CEO

It is a great challenge to introduce disruptive ideas in any environment. The author aims to introduce a few techniques in order to make the CEO listen to you. The first point is to understand the role and responsibilities of a CEO. Denning states that the defensive behavior of CEOs is a natural consequence of all the pressures on them. As it is noted, CEOs are responsible for the success of the entire organization, but "many of the key determinants of success lie outside their control". When communicating with CEOs, one must be aware that they work in intuitive mode - because they have no time to deliberate over arguments and details -, and that they might only consider information that comes from their inner circle of trust. Also, he cites the Gary Williams and Robert Miller study that groups executives in three categories: charismatics, skeptics, and followers. Assessing the CEO profile and getting the maximum as possible of his story can be decisive on getting them to listen.

This section of the book is mainly about communication, and Denning gives some insights on how to approach top level managers, which - although superficial - might be helpful when planning a presentation of new projects or ideas.

The leader's own story

This section is a suggestion for self-reflection. It is mainly presented as a sequence of questions and answers on taking the role of a leader and being prepared for that. The rationale is that leaders must be aware of the inherent challenges of assuming a leadership position and must commit themselves to the "worthwhile goal". The commitment, which must be of "mind, body, and soul" (Denning, 2007, 76), is crucial to focusing on the goal. The speech here assumes a very emotional line, and is presented with several metaphors, such as "They feel it. They hear it. They taste it. They smell it. [the commitment]" (Denning, 2007, 77).

After, the challenges of a leadership position are presented, with both emotional and practical approaches. While being a leader is considered "an orientation toward the world" that means "sacrificing yourself to the cause", the position is risky and might introduce change in the leader's personal life, such as less time available, and personal recognition for generating the change. The distinction between a successful leader and a manager is clear throughout the book, and it is reinforced in this chapter: "committing to being a leader will sometimes be in tension with having a career" (Denning, 2007, 79).

These arguments are not sustained with examples, which make it difficult to take them as a robust and precise analysis of the subject. However, they can be easily tracked to Denning own story at the World Bank, presented in the introduction of the book.

Understanding your listener

One of the key enablers of leadership is the ability to master the audience's story. This implies the ability to put yourself in the position of the counterpart to understand his situation and way of thinking and turn your ideas into appropriate words, which will be correctly understood and accepted.

4. 1 Denning's criticism on Howell Raines

To illustrate the importance of this enabler, Stephen Denning gives the example of Howell Raines, ex-CEO of New York Times. Raines was a person with a great strategy and vision, a person, who wanted to turn the great newspaper into something, which really excites audience's attention. He had everything to do this: more than 20 years of work experience in the company, vast of time to prepare, strong support of top management and very strong power in the company. Raines was lucky to start his term with a great coverage of 9/11 tragedy and show impressive performance in his first year. However, only after 19 months he was dismissed because Jayson Blair, one of the journalists, had been found guilty of plagiarism and lying.

According to the author, the main reason for Raines' fiasco was his long distance from his subordinates and his inabilities: to listen to others and take into account their position, to clearly communicate his vision and to stimulate a desire to follow him. Raines used dictatorial approach to management and simply issued orders. He kept himself physically and mentally distant from the staff and failed to understand the true intentions and desires of his subordinates. Because of this he failed to persuade the employees in his ideas and to motivate them to implement all the tremendous changes, which he expected from the organization. Denning believes that because of these pitfalls Raines was too busy as a manager to become a leader.

Was Howell Raines really guilty?

If we analyze this issue, firstly we may try to defend Howell Raines. After all, he was not the only one responsible for the incident, which has happened with Jayson Blair. There could be some problems with management and control of the information that gets into the newspaper, but is this the reason to resign executive editor? The journalistic history had a number of situations similar to this. Just to mention Christopher Newton, who has fabricated stories for Associated Press. Was the chief editor of Associated Press resigned in that case? Then why was the executive editor of New York Times "Howe Rainesed", as he is now glumly referred?

In his memoir "The One That Got Away: A memoir By Howell Raines"(2006), Raines presents himself as a courageous visionary, who was trying to give a new breath to the "sclerotic institution", but was never understood. He admits that his only mistake was to be concerned too much and blames the nature of the organization for his failure: "Frankly, no newspaper is set up to monitor for cheats and fabricators." He also tries to find justifications for his resignation instead of analyzing his own mistakes: "I stepped on a land mine named Jayson Blair."

However, deeper analysis of the story unveils some more explanations. It becomes obvious that Raines is guilty in at least failing to manage the political situation in his company and letting his haters use his pitfalls against him. There are many publications about Raines' story. There are many examples are of honorable people, who share similar conclusions,: Roy Peter Clark in his "Howell Raines: Gone Fishin'", James Warren in his "Big fish story: in Howell Raines's telling, his only mistake was caring too much." and Jack Shafer in his "Defending Howell Raines". Mainly, they agree with Denning that the main reasons of Raines' failure were his aggressive style of management with his inability to inspire and transmit his views to other people.

Of course, without knowing the complete picture of what was going on in The New York Times under Howell Raines' leadership, we cannot fully evaluate the conclusions, made by Denning. However, taking into account the opinions of independent people, mentioned above, it becomes clear that Blair's case was only a cause, but not the reason for Raines' resignation and there was much politics behind. These political failures could be impossible without serious leadership mistakes.

What can we learn?

The author stresses the importance of leadership skills for a manager, specifically the ability to understand your subordinates being in close contact with them, ability to clearly communicate you vision in "audience's words" and ability to motivate them to accept the big changes. Denning illustrates the importance of these abilities on the Raines' case and it is hard to disagree with him. However, there are many factors, which could have also seriously contributed to Raines' resignation and maybe, they were even more important than his failure to "master the audience's story". To make his conclusions more convincing, Denning could have also used other examples of historical mistakes in leadership instead of solely relying on Raines' case, which is in itself highly controversial.

5.0 Changing Peoples' Minds

A critical view of the very starting quote of this chapter illuminates the controversy of the ideas presented within it. "How quick come the reasons for approving what we like! " - Jane Austen (Denning, 2007, 92). As nobel as the ideas here are, they are highly subjective upon the intended view that the author wishes to present.

The controversial quotation notwithstanding, the concepts introduced by Stephen Denning actually usher in an innovative way for leaders to infuse passion into their teams and especially to change or mold the mindset and way of thinking of their workforce. This can be an invaluable tool if properly understood, harnessed and applied.

5.1 Why do people change their minds?

The chapter starts with a very compelling personal story which moves the reader to want to know where he is heading to with the story. Unfortunately, the suspense attained at the beginning of the chapter is no longer sustained as he moves deeper into the technicality of the concepts he wants to present. The reader's eagerness can be lost in the maze of words stringed together to prove his views.

However, Denning presents a clear importance of why leaders need to be able to change their followers' minds and further explains the dynamics of the process. The main focus here is how to change peoples' mindset. He writes "How do we persuade other people to do something different,not just on a one-time basis but passionately,so that they're willing to make fundamental changes to their lives,enthusiastically and with gusto?" (Denning, 2007, 99). He starts by showing the importance of a leader influencing people enough to make them have a new point of view which is in line with the objectives of the leader and the mission of the organisation.

Apparently, this point highlighted by Denning is a very important leadership factor as we discussed in class, because it is imperative for a leader to resonate and pass on the passion & drive required for his team to succeed. The bone of contention, however, is - What is the best approach to achieve this?

A graphical representation of the flow of reasoning presented by Denning to answer this question is presented below:

Figure 2 A diagramtic represntation of Why people change their minds & Approaches to changing other peoples mind.

The arrows in blue show why people change their minds and the other arrows show the corresponding approaches that can be used to change other peoples' minds. The shapes in red indicate the prefered selection of the author. In the view of the book "persuasion through language" is the best. He went further on this as illustrated in the diagram below.

Figure 3 Methods of Persuading People to change their minds

5.2 The Double-edged sword

As predominant with change propositions or theories, Denning's idea that narration is a more effective leadership tool as opposed to the conventional use of logical reasonings is open to criticisms and most will arguably identify the several loopholes and limitations that it is ladened with. This is especially true because his theory places conventional practice to question.

The concepts of indirect narrative can be a very valuable art but it is largely dependent on the stories enacted by the narrative in the listener. Therefore, there is absolutely no a assurance that it will successfully create the desired change in the mindset of the listener. It can even be misinterpreted as a ploy to manipulate. It can in summary be likened to a double edged sword, if it works the success is astronomical and if it fails it becomes a catastrophe. It largely remains as an uncertainty equation for leaders except for those who have mastered the art.

Truth and transformational leadership

According to Northouse, there are four main factors that determine a transformational leader (Spencer, 2002). One of these factors, idealized influence, can be linked to truthfulness. Leaders who have an idealized influence act as role models and have very high moral and ethical standards. According to Denning, transformational leaders should tell the truth to enable people to trust them. From an ethical point of view, lying can be seen as morally impermissible and this is in conflict with the high standards of transformational leaders.

Transformational leadership can be found in business and political settings. Denning stated the following: "Politicians and salespeople routinely shade the truth to win office or make a sale. Transformational leaders are in a different situation. If they are to inspire enduring enthusiasm for change, they must tell the truth" (Denning, 2007, 46). Can politicians and salesmen still be a transformational leader while not telling the entire truth? Denning links several examples of good and bad leaders to telling truthful stories. Is his view on truthfulness and transformational leadership consistent?

6.1 Truthful politicians

For a politician, especially a political leader of a nation, the key to success is trust. The majority of voters has to believe in his vision to lead the nation into the right direction, for example economic growth or social integration. Denning recognizes that truthfulness, as a part of the language of leadership, is needed for winning elections.

The most detailed analysis of an aspiring political leader is Al Gore. Denning shows what Gore did wrong as a politician and the change in his behavior being an environmental activist. During the election of 2000, Gore was not telling the truth. According to Denning, telling the doubtful story of Winifred Skinner, a woman who had to sell tin cans to pay for medical prescriptions, was one of the main reasons why Gore did not succeed in leadership.

It could be said that this is a good example, because Gore was telling irrelevant and implausible stories and people indeed lost their trust in Gore. Consequently, Gore was not elected. However, Denning exaggerated the importance of this not entirely truthful story. If the irrelevance and untruthfulness were key factors in the election, Gore's opponent Bush certainly would have attacked him on this aspect of his character. But he did not, as Cal Thomas stated in his analysis in the article 'The Boston Debate". To the contrary, it was the aggressiveness of Gore's own reaction on the media attention that struck him, in which he fought for his truthful character.

Gore even tries to be truthful in a different setting as an environmental activist, which can be seen in the title of his movie "An inconvenient truth". He encourages people to change their behavior by focusing on the true, authentic facts in his story. However, Gore is not telling the truth. The British court judged in 2007, after "The secret language of leadership" was published, that there are 9 inaccuracies in the movie. (BBC, 2007) Telling lies, though, did not have a great impact on his idealized influence as a transformational leader, since Gore is publicly admired as a leader and received the Nobel price.

Truth, lies and hiding information in business

Denning links truth not only to making career in politics but also to being a leader in business relationships. He distinguishes two ways of doing business that exist next to each other in the market: collaboration and competition. In a partnership or customer relationship, where collaboration applies, truth and trust are important.

According to Denning, truth in collaboration endures enthusiasm. In a partnership, the other party's enthusiasm is indeed over as soon as he finds out that there is not any truth in the other party's stories. But is it not just the perception of 'nothing but the truth' that holds the trust in this kind of relationship? As long as the lies are not revealed, this business relationship has the same characteristics as an entirely truthful business relationship.

The same counts for holding back information in stories told in a partnership. When new counterarguments are discovered, the other party becomes less enthusiastic and willing to cooperate, because his perception of the truth has changed. Still, the influence of this enthusiasm on long-term trust in a partnership depends on how this new information will be used in the future relationship.

Salesmen are given as an example of using a competitive way of doing business in a by definition collaborative customer relationship. They are lying and hiding information. Denning states that salesmen should change this behavior to become a trusted partner for the long term. Denning is not entirely right. Why do we still go over and over to these untrustworthy salesmen to ask for product information? We know that they could hide information and exaggerate some product features. As long as we ask the right questions and take their answers with a grain of salt, we will get truthful product information. Our loyalty to these shops over the years has shown that they are already seen as a trustworthy partner. We maintain a long-term customer relationship with stores, truthful or not.

Body Language

In this chapter the author relates Leadership with physical gestures associated with communication. He starts by reasoning that there is a relationship between followers' responsiveness and the body language used by the leader to communicate to them. He achieves this by making a direct analogy between how animals respond to different peoples' gestures to them. This was based on a research work carried out by Vicki Hearne in her book - Adams Task.

Denning basically appeals to the reader's reasoning by using common sense logic and reasonings to present his ideas about body movements. In comparison to most of the other chapters covered in this review, he presents concepts that are basic to most communication activities. In this case he examines the basic body languages necessary for effective leadership communication. He focuses on how a leader can present his story with emphasis on his physical movements and gestures rather than on the content of the story.

7.1 Major presentation pitfalls

Consequently, Denning equates the importance of preparing for the delivery of a story to the preparation of the story. An identified pitfall which is worthy of emphasis can be identified from his words:

"We often put so much time and energy into the content of what we are to say that we don't allow time to work on how we are going to say it. " (Denning, 2007, 137)

"we all want to believe that the key to having an impact on someone lies with the inherent quality of the ideas we present." (Denning, 2007,137)


"The content ofthe leader's story is only a part of the impact.What gives it force and meaning for the listener is the leader's calm,energy,and enthusiasm." (Denning, 2007, 137]

Denning highlighted this as a very common mistake that most leaders often find themselves in and his books helps bringing attention to this.

This, however, can be seen as an overgeneralization of this principle because a leader does not always have to prepare a presentation or speech to communicate with his people at all instance. In fact, some situations arise at the spur of the moment and he has to communicate without having to rehearse any particular delivery format before he has to respond.

Therefore, it is better for a leader to cultivate and imbibe the basics of body language and move himself to a point of unconscious/conscious competence. These basics as presented by the book are discussed below.

7.2 Body Language Basics

Studying all the nuances of body language will take a lifetime as stated by Denning in the book, but he identifies the following as the basics.

Figure 4 The basic body languages for effective leadership communication

Furthermore, he also identifies that: "speaking the language of leadership from the heart and making a full effort to communicate what you know,may often be enough" (Denning, 2007, 139).

He dispels the myth of the charismatic leader and uses a classical case of Mahatma Gandhi among other examples to buttress his point. His arguments on this issue are technically viable and reasonably acceptable.

However, Denning strongly relies on basic reasoning to make his conclusions without any reference or research work to back his statements. For most intellectual discourse this alone will not suffice. An instance of such statements is this - "...believe me,the difference between someone who is respecting these simple principles and someone who isn't is stark."

Also the title for this chapter does not truly reflect the content presented. The content focuses on a leader's presence solely in communications and nothing else like can be mistakenly inferred from the title.


The objective of the book is to help leaders understand how to communicate in such a way as to inspire effective desire in people. A common idea is that leadership and change are driven by the efforts of a few exceptional people. This book puts forward a different idea. It says that Leadership and change are driven by ordinary people who act and speak in a different way. Denning focuses much on "narrative intelligence" - the ability to describe things using stories - to understand the "stories" of the audience and the impact your story will have on the minds of the audience. His ideas are full of potentials and if successfully implemented can yield remarkable dividends.

Denning focuses specifically on the following qualitites, needed for successful narrative intelligence:

Ability to understand your listener and speak "his language".

Ability to energize your listener to become passionate about a goal.

Ability to communicate with the right body gestures.

The author persuasively supports his ideas by specific examples, but his reasoning

sometimes has general flaws such as:

Relying on single example, which is hard to evaluate because of the lack of additional information (Howell Raines' case).

Using superficial events to buttress his reasonings.

As compelling and informative as the book is, some suggestions that can enhance its applicability include:

Making detailed explanations on how to help the reader understand the implementation of the strategies.

Stating his theories more in narrative form to inspire the reader and make the second part as interesting as the first part of the book

Using strong and comprehensive evidence to prove the underlying theory or concept.

Considering or acknowledging the presence of other factors or influences in examples used to convey message

Avoid the use of controversial instances and also not entirely truthful stories.

Generally, considering this book on the backdrop of other Leadership books that have varying views from what he has presented we will rather than conclude that one author is wrong and another is right, prefer to look at all this in the lens of what we learnt in class - follow your leadership style and of course the best suited communication approach to your style and objective.