The Language of Leadership: Inspiring Change

Human communication has its own set of very unusual and counterintuitive rules.” — Malcolm Gladwell

What does it take to transmit bold new ideas to people who don’t want to hear them? How can the language you use facilitate enthusiastic, energetic implementation?

Transformational leaders:

  • Generate enduring enthusiasm for a common cause
  • Present innovative solutions to solve significant problems
  • Catalyze shifts in people’s values and ideologies
  • Demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice personal interests for the greater good
  • Help others get through crisis moments
  • Inspire people to want to change, creating a positive energy that sustains the change
  • Generate followers who will ultimately become leaders

The what of transformational leadership is reasonably clear. It’s the how that’s usually obscure.

  • How do leaders communicate complex ideas and spark others into enduringly enthusiastic action?
  • What words do they use to inspire others to become new leaders?
  • Why are some leaders able to accomplish the feat while others fail miserably?

Stephen Denning, a senior scholar at the University of Maryland’s Burns Academy of Leadership, makes the case for transformational communications in his book The Secret Language of Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2007). More than anything, it’s what leaders say — and the way they say it — that generates sustained energy and exponential results.


Many experts proclaim that leadership is solely an issue of inner conviction: You must find the leader deep within yourself.

Other experts encourage you to:

  • Become the person others will want to follow
  • Discover your strengths
  • Increase your self-awareness, self-regulation and authenticity
  • Become emotionally and socially intelligent
  • Visualize to materialize
  • Be true to yourself, and change will happen

If leaders’ own inner commitment to change is to have any effect at all, they must communicate it to those they aspire to lead. Leaders’ actions speak louder than their words, but in the short run, it’s what leaders say — or don’t say — that has an impact.

The right words can create:

  • A galvanizing effect
  • Enthusiasm
  • Energy
  • Momentum
  • Sustainable motivation

The wrong words, or even words said in the wrong sequence, can undermine your best intentions and plans, killing an initiative on the spot.


The traditional communication approach follows this sequence:

Define the problem ► Analyze it ►Recommend a solution

This approach appeals to reason and has been a revered intellectual tradition in organizations since the ancient Greeks. It works well when the aim is to pass on information to people who want to hear it, or who are obliged to comply and follow without question.

But if your aim is to get people to change their behavior and act in some fundamentally new ways with sustained energy and enthusiasm, old-school communication has two flaws:

  1. It doesn’t work.
  2. It often makes the situation worse (negative impact).

People who disagree with you or have other ideas and habits won’t respond well to your list of reasons to change. In fact, lecturing them on your beliefs will often lead to greater entrenchment in their long-held approaches and behaviors.


A significant body of research shows that asking people to change often drives them more deeply into opposition. In study after study, people display a phenomenon called confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and to irrationally avoid information and interpretations that contradict existing beliefs. All of this happens instantaneously in the part of the brain that’s responsible for emotional reactions.

This explains why traditional persuasion techniques fail, especially when delivered too early in a presentation. You risk speaking to a skeptical, cynical and/or hostile audience whose confirmation bias has been activated.

Successful leaders follow a unique, almost hidden communication pattern:

Grab the audience’s attention ► Stimulate desire ► Reinforce with reasons


In an experiment with 60 executives, researchers found the most important factors in grabbing their attention were:

  1. A personalized message
  2. Evoking an emotional response
  3. A trustworthy source
  4. Concise language

In fact, personalized messages that evoked emotion were more than twice as likely to resonate with the group.

Social scientists have shown that negative messages are more attention-getting than positive ones. To get an audience’s attention, share:

  • Stories about the audience’s problems
  • Stories about the problems’ worsening trajectory
  • A relevant story about how you dealt with adversity
  • A surprising question or challenge that will interest the audience


Positive stories are extremely important for creating a desire to change. If you want your team to do something different, present stories and clear examples of how successful innovators are making a difference.

Appeal to both heart and mind to gain an enthusiastic buy-in. Effective leaders establish an emotional connection.

The task isn’t to impose your will on an audience; it’s to enable participants to see the possibilities and come to their own conclusions, based on the evidence presented in your positive stories. These stories allow audience members to see the world for themselves, view their relationships in a new way and make progress in implementing organizational goals.


The desire for change will wane unless it’s supported and reinforced by compelling reasons. Remember to share the story of:

  • What the change is, as seen through the eyes of those who will be affected by it
  • How the change will be implemented, with a delineation of the simple steps for getting from “here” to “there”
  • Why the change will work, with an explanation of the underlying mechanisms that make change virtually inevitable