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.

How to Lead Change

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.

Confirmation Biases

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.

Successful leaders follow a unique, almost hidden communication pattern:

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

Unfortunately, this approach often eludes aspiring leaders. If you want listeners to own the change idea, your stories must help them discover the truth for themselves, thereby creating a new story.

What the leader says is the scaffolding — a catalyst for a creative process inside listeners’ heads.


This is a brief synopsis of a 2000 & 1000-word article suitable for consultants’ newsletters for executives and leaders in organizations. It is available for purchase with full reprint rights, which means you may put your name on it and use it in your newsletters, blogs or other marketing materials. You may also modify it and add your personal experiences and perspectives.

The complete 2,000 word article includes these important concepts:

  • How to Lead Change
  • Old-School Communication
  • Confirmation Biases
  • The Devil in the Details: Words Matter
  • 3 Steps for Inspiring Change
  • Step 1: Getting the Audience’s Attention
  • Step 2: Creating Desire
  • Step 3: Reinforcing with Reasons


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