posted 3 Sep 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 1
The Secret Language of Leadership
(To be published October 2007)
Author: Stephen Denning
Review by Graeme Burton
When Howell Raines took over as executive editor of the New York Times on 5 September 2001, he had a blueprint for change that he planned to pursue aggressively. Staff were lazy and set in their ways, he believed, and needed shaking up. It may make many feel uncomfortable, but the venerable and well-respected newspaper needed to be quicker with the news, to publish harder-hitting stories and to sharpen its writing – or risk eclipse.
He was no outsider, either, but a two-decade veteran of the organisation who had enjoyed the strong backing of his boss, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr, who endorsed his strategy.
And he had the Summer of 2001 to prepare for his leadership role, too, arranging breakfast and lunch meetings with staff and managers, while lining up the appointments he wished to make come September, particularly from among staff who shared his view that the newspaper needed to provide “more, better, faster”.
Within a week, of course, Raines’ new strategy of covering big stories with “overwhelming force” was tested with the 9/11 tragedy, and it passed with distinction: the newspaper won universal recognition for the way that it had handled the story.
Yet less than two years later, Raines was deposed after a fast-rising young reporter called Jayson Blair, who had epitomised the Raines era, was sacked after it was found that many of his stories had been made up or plagiarised.
Why did Raines fail his test of leadership?
Denning lists many shortcomings, but principal among them was the fact that he failed to stimulate a desire for change among staff and managers. As a result, the newsroom became a warzone, change became harder to achieve, not easier, and in the first big test of his management he was forced to follow the shamed reporter out the door.
“Raines was unable to communicate to the managers and staff why their lives as journalists would be better if they started to conduct themselves differently,” concludes Denning. What he failed to realise is that the traditional tools of management are often not conducive to transformational leadership.
For example, traditional managers expect to give instructions and be obeyed. Yet Raines’ orders were perceived as interference and resented by the recipients. Likewise, he was criticised for staying in his corner office and failing to engage staff on a regular basis. True, he did hold regular morning meetings, but the area they were held was labelled the ‘DMZ’ – the demilitarised zone – indicating that something had gone very seriously wrong with the corporate culture.
“The attributes of hierarchical leaders – ordering, assigning office space, hiring, firing, offering incentives and disincentives – don’t necessarily help leaders to connect with people and do the most important thing that genuine leaders have to do: instil in people the sustained desire to do something fundamentally different,” writes Denning.
And Raines was asking staff to make very big changes in their everyday working practices, to break out of their familiar routines and to do their jobs very differently.
Once upon a time, Raines’ approach would have been accepted. But in the peculiar atmosphere of a US newspaper’s newsroom a manager seeking far-reaching change needed to be a persuasive communicator. “Raines’ communications with his staff were mainly one-way tellings, rather than two-way conversations,” writes Denning.
For example, during the lunches he held with staff in the Summer of 2001 before he finally took over, he paid little heed to the fact that his guests didn’t say much, which should have been a warning sign that he was not winning their buy-in to his vision.
Successful leaders have always needed to be good communicators, to inspire. But never more so than today, even in quite humdrum leadership positions, given the near-permanent state of corporate change that we all live in these days. The Secret Language of Leadership, naturally enough for a book from Stephen Denning, champions the importance of business narrative.
But it goes much further, putting the language of leadership into context: management is one thing, but leadership is quite another. Denning, however, dissects the subject in an engaging manner, bringing in all kinds of stories (as you would expect) to illustrate his many points, providing an educational and informative book that can be effortlessly read from cover to cover.
Graeme Burton is the managing editor of Inside Knowledge. He can be contacted by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.