Living Dangerously – Issue 40

“Like the King, King David knew how to strum a person like an instrument.”


There’s a lot to be said for vision and values, but what about the voice of leadership? It’s not a widely discussed subject, but the masters-level players — and you know who you are — recognize speech as the “A” skill of leadership. Jean-Louis Gassée, head of Apple’s products division in the 1980s, once explained what made Steve Jobs so mesmerizing: “Steve could charm the panties off a person.” The very French Gassée wasn’t talking sexual harassment; he was referring to Jobs’s ability to convey such passion and conviction that the listener and speaker became one, united in a single goal or vision. Jobs understands that if you can’t win people’s attention, you can’t win their approval.


Leaders are judged even more by the music of their words than by whether they live up to them. We can’t hear the music in Al Gore, so we condemn him for not speaking from the soul. George W. Bush works hard to convey a tone of seriousness, and we listen for that even more than we do for his platform. It’s all music. Leaders who connect enter our imaginative space. It’s a huge space, one in which there is very little competition — which should make it prime real estate for any leader. Enter singing, and you are like Tide before Cheer, Fab, and Yes were invented. As the poet Malcolm de Chazal once said, “The ear has no eyelids.” If this is prime and empty mind space, then why don’t leaders understand how to colonize it?

One reason is that ours is a visual culture: We focus most of our efforts on seeing and on what is seen. Leaders and marketers rely on visuals to carry meaning. But words are so robust and physical that to use words like a singer is to nail home deep conviction in another person. Have you ever listened to how a really great vocalist turns a word, makes it move? Listen for how certain songs run right past your reasoning brain. The next stop is your primitive consciousness — smack into the space where the capacity to fall in love resides.

The ears are prime emotional real estate; the eyes are pure judgment. Marshall McLuhan, the great interpreter of visual culture, must not have appreciated this enough. Folklore maintains that McLuhan’s wife suffered a bizarre form of deafness: She was supposedly deaf only to the sound of her husband’s voice.

U2’s lead singer, Bono, understands this terrain. He calls King David the “Elvis of ancient times.” That’s a tremendous insight. King David transformed a ragtag group of nomads into a world power in a single generation. The equivalent today would be if Bill Gates had convinced people to buy Microsoft and to start speaking in Microsoft code. Yes, King David was your standard bloody street fighter and arch competitor. But Bono acknowledged that, in large measure, this king’s success came from being a poet, a singer, and a songwriter. Remember Psalm 23? It’s one of 150 psalms that King David is said to have written and sung to his own accompaniment. Like the King, King David knew how to strum a person like an instrument. He communicated at an emotional level beyond words. Get the music right, and you capture the crowd. When you listen to Nelson Mandela, you lean forward into his words. Something moves you. You are not just informed or entertained. You are won.

Let’s start with the average guy who morphs into artistry — who gets people to listen deeply, beyond their defense systems. His speech touches some primitive chord in people. How does it work?


Max Atkinson, once a professor at Oxford, was one of the earliest leadership-music analysts. Imagine listening to people as if they were performing unplugged — unaccompanied by anything but their audience’s heartbeat. That’s how bold Atkinson was. How much boredom he had to endure to find the Holy Grail of sound! He’d show up at speeches and analyze the words against the rate of applause. Applause produced the spikes on the speakers’ EKGs.

He came up with a formula that links leaders and rock stars. Discovering and following a few simple rules, Atkinson purportedly prepared a talk for an aspiring British political leader. Her speech was to run for 15 minutes in a forum that included several other candidates. Using Atkinson’s formula, she got through only 5 minutes of her prepared text. What happened? She was interrupted by applause so frequently that she couldn’t finish speaking. This is the realm of rock stars. This is the stuff of transcendence: when the music takes over — and musician, audience, and music become one.

How did Atkinson do it? He discovered that there are about a half-dozen verbal devices that will incite a rock-star reaction in people. The more of those devices that you can use together, the stronger your connection to your listeners will be.

All right, I’ll admit it: On the surface, this formula isn’t as significant as decoding the human genome. But it is an interesting exercise in decoding something as important as deep-tissue communication. My friend Dan Mapes, chief technology officer at Oz Entertainment (the company that is creating a technology-driven theme park just outside Kansas City, Kansas), says that, inasmuch as consciousness rules our lives as thoroughly as genes do, the decoding of language and meaning may measure up to the decoding of genes. When I told him about my search to understand these rules, he called my research the Human Menome Project, for the work done in memes, the building blocks of meaning.

Here’s how my Human Menome Project proceeded: Using Atkinson as the map that defined the space of inquiry, I started looking for word patterns that he suggested enabled rock stars to seduce listeners and to connect to an audience. It turns out that you can sell your ideas — good or bad — through the magic of words that form a conversational genome or define an incantational pattern.


One caution: My little lab — my ears and the space between them — is not terribly sophisticated. I’ve evaluated the word clusters, the sounds, and the speech patterns of a few leaders. So far, I’ve borrowed a lyric or two from Bruce Springsteen. He is, after all, the Boss.

Here are the patterns that define the music of leadership. They work whether you’re giving a speech or conducting a conversation.

Tell a survival story. Advertisers say that sex sells. Well, it doesn’t sell as keenly as a survival story does. Steve Jobs is a master at using survival to sell. Every pitch that he makes pits him against someone or something. Even when he doesn’t allude to survival, it’s always part of his myth. Almost reflexively, it has become his initial gambit, the song that he opens with. He doesn’t even need to articulate it. You’ll hear the same thing in most of Springsteen’s songs. Even the ones about love are about survival, the promise of getting through.

A survival story is best told by opening with a question. One of the best is, “To be, or not to be?” Pose a mystery that needs solving. Heighten a conflict. Begin and end with a question, because questions are more powerful than answers.


Go for true intimacy: Sound as if you are talking to yourself. The theories about servant leadership — caring for another more than for yourself — have their place. But when you want to convey something really important, the counterintuitive approach is to imagine that no one is listening and that you are talking to yourself — honestly, vulnerably, even painfully. Others will feel that they are overhearing your most unguarded thoughts. The honesty conveyed is strong. Don’t bother trying this if you’re bullshitting; the falseness will ring loud. But when talking about a new plan, idea, or philosophy, imagine that you’re speaking to yourself. Shakespeare’s soliloquies and sonnets are like this. So are Springsteen’s songs. Take, for example, these lyrics from “Better Days.” They sound like an interior monologue.

Well, I took a piss at fortune’s sweet kiss
It’s like eatin’ caviar and dirt
It’s a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending
A rich man in a poor man’s shirt

We may be growing distrustful of all public rhetoric. We want the truth, and we only trust getting it when the cues are right: intimate, personal, and authentic.

If you’re feeling confident in the spotlight, try using double entendres: They draw people in as if you were sharing a private joke.

Follow the “rule of three.” Three of anything — parallel words, rhymes, clusters — capture a listener. There is something about the wiring in our heads that makes any collection of two seem wrong and incomplete. And if you go for four, you’ll risk being shut out of people’s listening space. So try threesomes like “now, tomorrow, and forever” or “purpose, strategy, and resolve.” (Check out Springsteen’s song “Johnny 99.”)


Pay attention to the way words sound; the music is half the meaning. Sounds evoke a visceral feeling. The Italian language, for example, is full of vowels, which means that you speak it at the front of the mouth. That’s also where babies form their “goo-goo,” “ga-ga” language. When we listen to Italian words, we repeat them in our mind’s ears. They make us feel warm, hugged, and innocent. All language has a subtle music of meaning.

Consonance — the repetition of consonants — is full of hard sounds. Using words that contain lots of consonants suggests that you really mean business. Consonants are tough. Evoking a very emotional response is better done with vowels. It opens up people’s ears and softens their feelings.

In rock music, you’ll hear few “buts” and many “ands” for the same reason: “And” opens the mind, moves it; “but” shuts it down, evokes judgment in the listener.

Dare to be Shakespeare. Afraid of poetry? Get over it. The simplest, most connective language is poetry. Look at Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which is full of poetry. Or take, for example, something that Jobs once said: “There are so many exciting things in our headlights that will take us through the next two to three years. Only after that will we start to send people out into the darkness.” That is pure Abe Lincoln.

It’s amazing to think that our rational, clear, beloved English is really a series of magic spells. But consider this: Linguistics professors tape ordinary speech and then play it back so slow and loud that you think you’re in a Tibetan temple. At the level of pure sound, all conversations mutate into “om,” or some gong-toned, muscle-deep, throbbing chant.


It’s eerie. We are all singing a religious song — even when we are asking for a second martini.

The most followed leaders are romantic poets whose songs have bled off the page and into life. What a great excuse leadership is: You can sing — even if “in real life” you’re just a doctor, a lawyer, or an Indian chief. Sing your heart out. Others will follow.

Harriet Rubin ( is the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women (Doubleday, 1997) and Soloing: Realizing Your Life’s Ambition (Harpercollins, 1999).