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The Secret Language of Leadership - Steve Denning

Info: 5429 words (22 pages) Dissertation
Published: 11th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Leadership

Selected in 2000 as one of the world’s ten most admired knowledge leader, Steve Denning is an award winner for the books «The secret language of leadership» and «the leader’s guide to storytelling».

He studied law and psychology in Sydney University and then went to Oxford in the UK for a law postgraduate degree.

He worked in organization in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia and was until 2000 the program director Knowledge Management at the World Bank.

In the book the Secret Language of Leadership, the steps that have to be achieved to become a successful leader are to get the attention, to stimulate desire, to reinforce the reason and to continue the conversation. To reach those, a leader has to use six enablers that will be describing in our analysis of the language of Leadership: key enablers.

Articulating a clear, inspiring goal

Stephen Denning starts his explanation of the key enablers of the language of Leadership by a quote o George Bernard Shaw:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

This quote shows us the importance we give on the recognition of the actions we can do or the goal we can reach.

We will now analyze how important it is to articulate a clear, inspiring goal.

Stephen Denning illustrate the chapter, Articulating a clear, inspiring goal, of his book; with the example of the company Apple.

Steve Jobs the creator of Apple had created chaos in his company because even if he is a brilliant person he was not an inexperience chairman.  A new CEO took his place in 1983, John Sculley, who was a star manager of other big companies as Pepsi. Even if Sculley did a good job on stabilizing the corporation and rationnalized the products, the Apple staff was no supporting him. Sculley wanted to implement a shift in Apple life by producing low cost computers like Dell, but the staff was not interested in becoming just another computer company. They wanted to follow Steve Job’s goal of creating cool, innovative electronic products, a purpose that for themselves was worthwhile in itself. John Sculley was forced out in 1993, his instrumental goals were not embraced and he was not successful on inspiring Apple staff to pursue new goals energetically and enthusiastically.

What the staff wanted was to pursue Apple original purpose, which was more seductive for them as they came into this company for those values. Michael Spindler, Sculley’s successors met the same fate.

Steve Jobs came back as the CEO of Apple, and he didn’t try to change the company purpose, which he settled many years before. We now know the success of Apple, Steve Jobs became a great CEO and he spread the world with his initiate focus, which was designing cool, innovative electronic products. Apple is a success story and Steve Jobs is often associate to this success, even when he has medical trouble it has an important impact on Apple stock exchange. Steve Jobs is so link to Apple that every launching of his product and every keynote he does make a huge buzz.

In my opinion and especially in the market of new technologies when a company his created with a new concept, a brand new idea, a new way to work and projection in the future; the people who mean to work for those values are so convince that it is what you have to reach that they won’t consider any other proposition.  Sculley and Spindler did not take into consideration what was Apple staff considerations and first goals; it is why we ask them to quit the company. It is complicated to change the main purpose of a business and the common goals and ideas of a whole staff when there are extremely committed to it. Before making changes in a company you have to define a clear vision and history of what people working in are sensitive and committed to.

1. Articulating a Worthwhile purpose

In this part, Stephen Denning set up the problematic of the importance of enduring enthusiasm. He is wondering why Steve Jobs could generate enduring enthusiasm while John Sculley couldn’t.

Stephen Denning take the example of two kids playing piano, one child loves it, it’s a joy for her to play, it fills her life with meaning and she wins prizes. Her joy of playing is even more important that the prizes or recognition she could get. An other child is forced by her parents to play, she has a natural aptitude for music but do not enjoy it so much.

Those two girls have a different view on this activity, the first one feels energized and enthusiastic and the second one is bored.

Stephen Denning link this example with the practice of sharing knowledge in the organization, which is called knowledge management. Some people within the organization commit their working lives to making the best knowledge available to those who need it. They are honest and open to others. The source of their own personal growth is from the knowledge they spread within the organization, the benefits for them is the inherent value of sharing knowledge itself.

Some people are practicing knowledge management on their own, it is to bring more money into the company, but for those who want to share their knowledge, they will find reward in the essential fact that the knowledge will be share.

Stephen Denning says:

A principal difference between these two different ways of viewing an activity is that when the activity generates sustained enthusiasm, the activity is being pursued for its own sake, not merely to achieve some instrumental or external good such as money, status, prestige, power, or winning. The perceived inherent worth of the activity being undertaken is foundational.”

For Stephen Denning the enthusiasm toward an activity is important, because if you are enthusiastic for an activity, you will be for the own sake of this activity and not for some other instrumental goals.

I totally agree with this vision, as I consider than even if you can be successful for an activity you don’t really like, you won’t have the same interest and implication to that activity that if you’re really enthusiastic about it. When you are a leader your are face to certain situation that if you are not enthusiastic about what you are doing it will be difficult for you to find solutions or it will take you more time to do it, or you will not act you should do. The enthusiasm you could have for an activity can have influence on the people you are working with. The have feelings and can perceive if you are running for instrumental goals or if you find happiness on the own sake of an activity. It is an element to recognize basic leaders to outstanding ones.

In some situation, Stephen Denning  take the example of prisoners in a concentration camps, people can find psychic energy to create meaning for their lives.  The people who are able to find inherent value in whatever they are doing are sometimes called “autotelic personalities”: they have the capacity to be intrinsically motivated by almost any activity.

It is a great advantage of being able to find value in what you are doing and to be motivated in whatever you do, but I am sceptical on the degree of enthusiasm of those people. I agree in the fact that you can motivate yourself for some activities that you are not really into it, but I think their might be a difference in the level of implication and enthusiasm for activities that really fit to you and you personality and vision that the one which are not.

Stephen Denning define the characteristics of activities that can generate sustained enthusiasm:

– The participants in the activity can see themselves making progress toward something that is good for its own sake, additional effort is a joy and not a burden.

– The participants experience their own personal growth and development as part of the activity. A balance between ability level and challenge—the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult—is also conducive to enthusiasm.

– The participants see themselves as contributing to, raising the sights of, and enhancing the efforts of other people pursuing the same activity.

– Ideally, the activity should bring some positive instrumental

benefits: income, status, prestige. But even without that, it should

at least be without negative instrumental effects.

If those four elements are in place, there are chances that enthusiasm can be sustained.

We can also notice that the primacy of goals pursued for their own sake in transformational leadership does not mean that instrumental benefits are unimportant. In practice, instrumental benefits reinforce the pursuit of goals for their own sake. Instrumental goals are complementary to enthusiasm and the pursued of goals by their own sake.

But you have to remember that even if instrumental benefits are important, if you placed them first, enthusiasm is likely to die. You always have to consider the inherent value of the activity.

For Stephen Denning: “One central aspect of the language of transformational leadership is therefore to articulate goals and activities in terms that can be viewed by participants as worthwhile in themselves, not merely pursued because they lead to instrumental benefits.” This is a fundamental quote that resume the importance of articulating a clear, inspiring goal.

Those facts are true for leaders, but it is also true for corporations, they are most inspiring when they pursue large goals that are worthwhile in themselves. In this book, we find the example of Toyota, their goal is to: “to enrich society through the building of cars and trucks.” Also the example of Johnson & Johnson who defines the company’s responsibilities as first, to the consumers and medical professionals using its products, second, to employees and managers, third to the communities where its people work and live, and fourth and last, to its stockholders. Or Costco, their goal is to provide its members quality goods at low markups.

Transformational leaders present their goals as larger than any particular task or organization or time-bound objective.  Stephen Denning take the example in politics: “Thus Abraham Lincoln can be assassinated, but his vision of a nation pursuing a new birth of freedom lives on. John F. Kennedy can be shot, but his vision of changing race relations in the United States is implemented by his successor. Martin Luther King Jr. can be murdered, but a whole nation continues the work that he started.”

It is true that Goals that are articulated as worthwhile in themselves enhance the possibility of sustained enthusiasm, and hence the possibility of transformational leadership. But, articulating the goal as worthwhile in itself doesn’t mean that listeners will necessarily see it in this way.

Enthusiasm and finding reward in the activity your are pursuing is important, you find more energy and capabilities of reaching your goals and you know that when an activity is pursued for its own sake, the activity never ends. You are so convinced of the meaning and the importance of the activity that you want to reach a level of excellence, the activity will have no limits. It is what give us excitement when we are doing something we are convinced to do. In my opinion to be a good leader you should look for those feelings and excitement in an activity that will fulfill you needs. Or if you want to become a good leader it is the way you have to perceive an activity, you have to tend to those attempt.

We are now going to see the importance of setting priorities among goals.

2. Setting Priorities Among Goals

Leader fails a lot because they don’t have a clear and inspiring goal or have too many of them.

Leadership is such a demanding activity that any one individual can probably pursue no more than a couple of significant change ideas at any one time. It is essential to set priorities. Selecting a goal, or at most several goals, and then persevering is a requirement for success as a transformational leader.

Stephen Denning take the example of Ronal Reagan, who was a single mindedness leader and politician.  He success was mainly based on a relatively small number of goals : defeating the Soviet Union and reducing taxes and the size of government.

What I learn for the chapter tow of the part two of  The secret language of Leadership, is the importance of commitment and enthusiasm toward an activity in order to embrace inspiring goals that will be define clearly and focus on some  domains, in order to make the activity a success.

The leader’s own story – Committing to the goal

Stephen Denning starts this third chapter by pointing out the fact that Abraham Lincoln did not begin his presidency as a transformational leader.

By definition, transformational leadership is a process that changes and transforms individuals. It is often associated with ethics and involves long-term goals.

Transformational leadership focuses on the process by which the leader engages with followers, and together create a connection that raises each of them to higher levels of motivation and morality. A transformational leader must be attentive to follower needs and motivation, and tries to help followers reach their full potential. It requires long term strategic planning, clear objectives, a clear vision, the efficiency of systems and processes…

According to B.M. Bass, one of the leading theorist’s on transformational leadership, the leader transforms and motivates followers by: making them more aware of the importance of task outcomes, inducing them to transcend their own self-interest for the sake of the organization or team, and activating their higher order needs.

Transformational leadership is concerned both with the performance of followers as well as developing them to their full potential.

What make Stephen Denning says that Abraham Lincoln did not begin his presidency as a transformational leader is that he was explicit in declaring that he had no intent to abolish slavery to his earlier speeches. Its explicit goal was to preserve the Union at that time, which mad sense as there was no consensus for abolishing slavery.

But soon, in 1862, nearly 2 years after the beginning of his presidency, he came to the view that the Union could not be preserved without abolishing slavery.

Stephen Denning says: “Privately, he continued to argue that his goal remained the pragmatic one of preserving the Union. But publicly, Lincoln became a leader in a moral cause.”

In December 1862 Abraham Lincoln made a speech to the Congress:

We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

This speech symbolize the moment when Lincoln became a transformational leader, he justified his action on instrumental and legal grounds. This new vision, based on moral grounds, Lincoln showed that it was something worthwhile in itself. With this changes Lincoln is proclaiming a new Union who want to restrain slavery, who will fulfill the promise of liberty. We can say that Lincoln is a transformational leader after this participation in the Congress in December 1862 because he stimulates people to want to do something different, inspiring them to higher levels of aspiration. Abraham Lincoln gives a new vision of what the United States should sand for: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”

Stephen Denning came to the point of studying politicians as leaders.

1. Politicians as Leaders

We often think of our politicians as leaders. But they are more oriented on the acquisition and retention of political office rather than being worried about people moral values and inspiring them to change. But if they do care, they usually survive in the world of politics.

A successful politicians is one who is willing to fight, to attack the establish order, who is flexible. And who is able to preserve a public image of being honest, compassionate, moral and devout.

Stephen Denning notice that: “ Retaining power is principally about listening to the electorate. “If you want to get elected, learn to speak,” said Tom Daschle, former Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate. “If you want to stay elected, learn to listen.”

It is difficult to understand the commitment to change of politicians and also ambiguous, because you are not 100% sure of what drive them to the commitment of their goals.

Stephen Denning says that we should not be surprised of the lack of leadership in politics because nothing in the terminology of politics suggests that the people are electing “leaders”.

Also that politicians have qualities like containing conflicts, guiding forces of change by giving direction, value and purpose… but that it is not necessarily the qualities of a transformational leader.

I agree with the fact that politicians have qualities and that it is not the sign of a transformational leader. But when you choose to elect a politician, you would like him to manage your country and maybe to make yourself more aware of the importance of task outcomes, for your own self-interest, you might want his politician to be concern of developing the population to its full potential. But it is that in reality that does not happen that much, or will we know it and we would live in a perfect world or close to the excellence !

2. CEOs as Leaders

Stephen Denning takes the example of Alan Klapmeier in Cirrus Design, a manufacturer of private aircraft. Alan wanted to introduce a new innovation that would change the industry, but its board of directors stopped him because they just completes a market research highlighting that this product elicited the least interest. Later Klapmeier convinced his board of directors, the innovation was introduced and it became a success. The decisive issue for the board of directors was not if the innovation was worthwhile but it was the institutional preoccupation.

Stephen Denning says: “ If a firm can focus its efforts on activities valuable in themselves where it has, or can develop, an edge over its competitors, social responsibility can become not a drag on the firm’s profitability but rather a strategic business opportunity. Companies can do well while doing good.”

He also highlight the fact that is easier to pursue an inherently worthwhile purpose in a privately held corporation rather than in a publicly held corporation as their business tend to be faire-weather corporate citizens, they are under continuing pressure to grow and do whatever is profitable. Furthermore, pursuing goals that are both worthwhile and profitable doesn’t remove the inherent tensions between the pursuit of worthwhile activities and the goal of enhancing the bottom line.

We can see that it is not easy for a CEO to be a leader, it depends of the environment, the context; it is why a leader as to be flexible and can adapt easily to the environment. We can also say that in publicly own companies they have the same tools as private own companies so they can try harder to pursue an inherently worthwhile purpose by develop a challenging and attractive vision, together with the employees and translate it to actions, express confidence, decisiveness and optimism about the vision and its implementation, realize the vision through small planned steps for its full implementation. But we also have to balances with the fact that objectives are not the same in private and publicly own companies.

Speaking to the CEO

(NB: people of power will be called CEO)

Leadership is here approached through change. The main question rose by the author is “How to communicate disruptive new ideas to people with great power”. This implies the question of the HOW of course, which is one of the Management science and research main concerns but there is also here a dimension not that often developed, it’s the communication with people having power. We often hear how to be a leader and get your team and “N-1” to do things but it is not that often that the target of power people (CEO) is approached.

The key idea expressed here is “understanding”. The author emphasis on the human part of every individual and on the importance of the context. He thinks the person as an individual but part of a global scheme. To lead correctly you have to explore deeper and learn about personal individual. What are their preferences, hopes, manners, fears…

The idea here is to understand how people work inside, what trigger them. Because if you can understand the deeper needs of an individual you can’t then easily figure out the proper way to communicate with him. You have then greater chances for him to listen to you and then to believe you.

1. Garry Williams and Robert Miller theory

The author then develops a theory by Gary Williams and Robert Miller. They have agreed on 3 main leaders categories (80%): the charismatic, the skeptics and the followers, and they. then talk about thinkers and controllers (20%)

Leaders needs:

  • For charismatic: the boldness of idea should be featured
  • For skeptical: need to hear the message from a person he trusts
  • For risk averse follower: need to be reassured other people do it do
  • Controller and thinkers: need details

Trust Issue:

The question of trust is developed. They distinguish here in the game of trust two different parties: the people in the inner circle of trust of the leader and the others.

Inner Circle

Not yet ”trusted”

– Has the CEO’s attention

– Sponsors the interaction

– Can be perceived as an opponent

– Can be perceived as irrelevant

– If so won’t be listened to

When aware of that, the challenges are easier to identify. The problem is here to focus on the CEO’s interests and to make him believe in the idea you want to present to him by making it a part of himself.

Committing to change

The author uses here a powerful expression “Commitment mind, body and soul”. He explains here that to him the only way for a leader to succeed is to commit fully to an objective. The leader is here expected to “see intensively even obsessively, to feel it”. Being committed 100% is crucial for the leader’s effectiveness, but the real problem is not to get him to convince the other but to get him passionate about the goal and get it to become a part of him. Because if strongly and intimately convinced he will be able to take the goal/company or team to a higher level.

The leader’s feelings stressed out?

Feelings are often considered in Leadership theories, how to connect with people to make them do what is needed for the common goal (often the company)? But what I think is extremely interesting here is the consideration made to the leader’s feelings. The question is not how to deal with the team’s feelings but to analyze what thrive the leaders and how they handle their emotions.

The Author here develops a little paragraph on how stressful it can be for a leader to become a leader. The two mains reasons to this stress would be :

Steve Denning then points out the famous and classical world Leaders such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy who so intimately convinced had to pay the price of their life for their causes.

To conclude this discussion I found important to highlight the phrase p79 telling that “it’s an opportunity to lift their game to a new level” because to me it sums up very well the basic structure of leadership that is to say the dimension of a vision.

2. Howell Raines leadership tale

Steve Denning choose to introduce this chapter with a story:

“The Howell Raines’s leadership tale”.

He tells us more about Howell Raines, former executive editor of the New York Times and the kind of leader he is and how he lived and tried to implement is change strategy.

To sum up, Raines wanted the times to be the first on the news, with bigger and more original stories covered by what he called “overwhelming force”. He was familiar with the firm and the staff and had strong backing from his boss.

One of the first thing is did was to use his right of fire and hire to create the dream team he had in mind. He did implemented change and got the Times to win a Pulitzer but after 19 months he was dismissed because of one of his reporter accused of plagiarism. The underlying reason was a bit different though, he was told to have “lost the newsroom”.

What happened here is that despite his vision and that he strongly believed in what he intended to implement, he had failed to win “the hearts and minds “of his staff. He did not listened to his people enough and was perceived as very intimidating and aggressive.

He did not succeed in taking other with him in his change strategy mainly because he underestimated his change strategy and its interaction with the staff.

New audience:

The author here develops the concept of audience evolution. Communication and management as we know it now is pretty recent in human history. “Once upon a time” people were not considering work like they are now. They had no specific expectations except earning money and would not even think work as a way of making them feel better, important and individually considered.

There are 3 notions I will highlight that I think are crucial to understand this change of audience expectations:

Quest for happiness:

Nowadays we are in what I call the endless happiness quest, everyone wants and have to be happy by any means, and it of course includes work. People have more skills, are more educated and therefore expect more. They want something in return.

New relation to authority figures:

Another important thing that changes a lot the way the audience is acting is that we nowadays have a new relation towards authority, in private spheres (Family with your parents) and public spheres (at work with your boss). This is very important to keep in mind to understand why the audience acts in a certain way and what it expects.

Expansion of diversity:

We are dealing with more and more differences between people: “gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, life style, age group and geographical location”

Understand that new audience:

The problem is that dealing with different people means that you won’t reach them with the same tools. What is the common point to every single individual? We are humans. And what is common to every human being? Emotions. Whatever we do, wherever we come from we are driven by emotions, whether we try to hide them or we work with them we are all emotional. This is what the leader has to use: Emotions. He has to keep in mind that we are all different, have different goals, ambitions, perspectives and needs but a way to get us to understand the other and get involve in change or in a project is to use our emotions, the one that thrives us to go to “another level”.

The author emphasis a 2 dimensions individual with a surface and a deeper world. To make something of someone you have to go to the deeper world, and for this you have first to get to know the individual personal story.

They question. They explore. They intuit. They wander. They mingle. They live in it. They listen. They watch.”

It’s a matter of imaginatively reaching out and getting inside the subjective world of the people who need to change and getting a sense of what it is like living in that world, so that the leaders feel its logic and power and order and compelling harmony”

Finding and encouraging New leaders

Steve Denning develops an idea that I find particularly interesting it is that leaders can’t work alone. No matter how charismatic and how committed he is to his vision an idea he will need the others to make change happen. He speaks about middle hierarchy and calls them “evangelizers”. He then makes a parallel with Raines story and how he failed involving his staff in his change strategy.

He ends that chapter with the concept of

Narrative intelligence required for understanding the story of the change idea and the audience’s story”.

3.Steve Denning vision of leadership

Why Do People Change Their Minds?

Stephen Denning explains us that there are 3 ways for people to change their mind: by actual experience, by observed experience, and by symbolic learning.

Actual Experience:

The way we are living and experiencing things around us can change the way we think about them, mostly because of the feelings we have when experiencing those things. When you feel a strong emotion doing something, you trend to pay attention to it and to remember it more easily and longer than when you don’t feel anything.

Observed Experience:

Actual experience is not the only way to learn from experiences, observing events can have the same emotional effect as real-life experiencing.

In the public arena, 9/11 changed the way many people viewed terrorism.

Symbolic Learning:

Most of the time the learning of an idea communicated symbolically is not as powerful as an experience but it can have similar physiological reactions.

In the author case, the combination of direct experience, observed experience, and symbolic learning led to his spending a large part of his life devoted to international development.

1. Changing minds through direct or observed learning:

The more immediately people are involved in an actual or observed experience, the more meaningful the learning will be, and the more impact they will have. Direct or observed learning in a business environment can be: acting, conversations, visits, role-playing, simulations, prototyping, training, …

Advantages of experiential learning (direct or observed):

  • Emotions are involved
  • Participants make up their own opinion (durability of the change)
  • Experiential learning is more effective than passive learning

Limits of experiential learning:

  • Leaders don’t always have the power to change people’s actual experiences
  • Most of the leaders falls on the use of language as a way to change people’s mind

2. Persuading people to change through language

Methods of persuading people change their minds




Direct and explicit

Appeal to reason through detailed evidence and arguments

Narratives in which the object is to have the listener live the story as fully and movingly as possible

Indirect and implicit

Appeals to intuition, through cues, signs, heuristics and manipul

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