Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

Archive for June, 2017

How To Be A Better Leader In A Shape-Shifting World

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A speech to the CEO Communications Summit, Montreal, June 14, 2017

shutterstock_565936849We’re here to talk about the communication of leadership, about the relationship between CEOs and their communicators and what that relationship means in the world we live in. In fact, my first book was a comic novel about that relationship. It’s about a speechwriter who makes a joke a party that his dream job is to be a failed CEO. “That’s where the real money is. How hard could it be? You get on the corporate jet, fly around, make speeches until they fire you and then they give you millions of dollars to go away. I could do that, I’d be great at it!”

In the book, some guys take him up on it, flatter him that he’s such a great leadership coach, he’ll be a great leader. All he has to do is go down with the ship and he gets $25 million. Then he learns that with the stock trades behind this deal, the other guys will go back to Geneva but he’ll go to jail. And also, when it’s done, 11,000 families are going to be poor. So he has to figure out how to rewrite the script and save the day.

CEO and speechwriter are two jobs most people think would be fun to have.

It’s fun to imagine yourself in the big office with the big bucks, barking orders to underlings on your way to fly the company jet to Jackson Hole for the weekend. That’s fun.

It’s also fun to imagine yourself as the really smart person banging out brilliant prose on the keyboard, telling art directors and producers to shut up and let you finish, surrounded by bohemian friends and invited to lots of dinner parties, you know, the writer’s life.

Here’s the thing though. Most people are self-aware enough to know they wouldn’t be good at being a speechwriter. Writing is hard, how to do you think that up? Most people know they couldn’t cut it.

But CEO? Almost everybody thinks they could be a CEO. It’s almost an American cult belief, the idea that anyone who is enough of a genius to invent an app to name cats would obviously be a genius at running a company with 30,000 employees.

It’s kind of insane. But that’s how Americans think.

And the danger is we get really bad leadership sometimes because somebody doesn’t know who he really is, he just thinks he wants the bucks. In my experience, and I’ve worked with several people who made it to that level of incompetence, there’s nothing you can do as a coach to help them except to help them move out.

Being a CEO and a speechwriter are very different jobs. But there’s one place they overlap and that’s in the realm of vision and strategy. Being able to see a big picture and frame the story of leadership, the story of what the organization stands for, the story of what the world needs from you.

A CEO usually can’t do that by herself. The smart ones want to know who around them can be their scout. Who can see all the way to the horizon and help them focus on what really matters.

And what really matters? The communication of leadership. Framing the story of what your organization stands for at this moment in time.

This relationship between the CEO and speechwriter – our culture doesn’t exactly give us a lot to go on about what this is.

Yesterday, Scott went back to the Greeks and Romans. So let me go to Shakespeare.

My advice is, you don’t want to be Iago. What he communicated was confusion, followed by destruction.

Falstaff, maybe, if you drink a lot with your client.

Hamlet had Horatio, who basically didn’t bring much to the party.

King Lear has Kent, who’s honest and good, does what he’s told … but he’s more like a COO. He keeps going offstage to try and fix the problems Lear creates.

But Lear also had The Fool. And the Fool is the only one who tells Lear the truth. Not what he wants to hear but what he has to hear. And he teases sanity out of his boss. He’s the only one who can do it.

As speechwriters and speech coaches, that’s us. We’re the Court Jesters, the ones who can speak truth to power without getting fired (at least not too often). And far from being rude or improper, that’s the minimum we owe somebody who’s going to get up on stage in front of a thousand people and will die unless we help them get it right. It’s an awesome responsibility.

I guess, if there’s one modern work of art that reflects who we are and what we do, it has to be The King’s Speech, the only time I’ve ever seen the way I spend my days accurately reflected on the screen. That, and Groundhog Day.

Japanese literature does have some great models of people who coached leaders.

Most famous is probably, Takuan, the laughing monk in the story of Japan’s greatest swordsman, Musashi. He’s a character in more than a hundred books, movies and anime. He’s like Yoda to the swordsman. Always making him stop and clear his mind.

But here’s the thing: Takuan Soho was a real Zen Master who, at the same time Shakespeare was alive, was going around Japan coaching Samurai leaders on how to lead, on the concept of “right mind, right action.”

He wrote to one warlord and asked him to consider two questions.

“What are the consequences of your thoughts? Actions.
What are the consequences of your actions? History.”

You don’t have to be a Zen master to hear how that resonates with what we face today.

Has there ever been a more interesting and important time to be a corporate speechwriter?

My father was a CEO back in the 70s. He’s 92 now, lives in DC and doesn’t take a single pill. So before I came, I called him and said, Hey Dad, tell me about your speeches, how did you get your speeches done? He said he wrote his own — mostly just bullet points on a card. Didn’t use a speechwriter. So, what were the speeches about? He said, mainly, what are we going to do about third quarter inventories of aluminum billets and stuff like that. Deadly boring. He said it would have been a lot more fun doing what I do.

What’s different in this moment of history is this: CEO’s can’t just live in the “business world” anymore, like my Dad could. They have to live in the real world. They have to be responsible for their footprint in the real world. The first part of that is understanding that you do have a footprint, a footprint that extends far beyond your balance sheet. It’s economic, it’s societal, it’s historic.

I co-authored a book called Nanovation that was a 3-year case study on Tata Motors and the Nano, their attempt to get Indian families off scooters and into safe cars. The Tata Group is an interesting company. A hundred and fifty years ago, they decided it wasn’t good enough to make a profit. They saw that if India was ever going to be independent, somebody needed to build an industrial infrastructure and the British weren’t going to do that. So the Tatas made it their purpose to build that infrastructure. And build it profitably.

They made themselves into industrial Gandhis. And the payoffs for that purpose have been huge.

If you work for a company like that, that’s interesting. Communicating that purpose is important. Not just to customers, but to the world at large. You take a stand.

The communication of leadership is the most important thing you can work on in a company, because everything else depends on getting that right.

This is critical, because we are at a “leadership inflection point” that’s caused by our increased consciousness of global cause and effect.

Let me illustrate that with Pete Weissman’s Three Pillars

Communication of LeadershipWhen my Dad was a CEO, business leaders lived and spoke about “the business world.”

Today’s CEO lives and speaks in “the real world” from a business perspective. Because we have a better understanding of how business is connected to human outcomes. Today, too much is at stake and we see it. We can’t ignore “cause and effect.”

So to adopt Patty Sanchez’s model from Duarte, this is what it was (Pillar 1, The Past 1.0) and this is what it is (The Present 2.0). Now, here’s what it “will be.” (The Future 3.0)

Leaders will live and speak in “a better world” of human outcomes globally. Because the costs are too visible to ignore.

We live in an age when we have had real consensus on the idea of purpose-based leadership, at least in the best companies.

An age when ideas of servant leadership, emotional maturity and diversity mean something, where they aren’t laughed at. That’s “authentic leadership.”

That consensus is being challenged by public leadership that scoffs at things like rules and facts. That’s “alternative leadership.”

Authentic leadership talks about “what’s so.”

Alternative leadership says “truth is what I say it is today.” Facts don’t matter. Alternative leadership scoffs at the idea of “a better world.” Or claims that what’s better is what’s best for the leader and his cohorts.

We’ve seen this before in history. It never ends well.

We’ll see which kind of leaderships wins in the long run, but right now the business leaders we work with have to be able to talk about a lot more than third quarter inventories of aluminum billet. They have to talk about their organization’s place in the world. And they need you to be able to frame the story of your organization as a positive force for good, as a force to be trusted. A force to be respected.

If you have Muslim employees or customers or do business in Muslim populations, you can’t clam up about a Muslim ban. Maybe the US can pull out of the Paris Accords but GE can’t. GM can’t. Sherwin-Williams can’t. Because they do business in the real world.

We live in interesting times. This moment in history requires a special type of speechwriter. I think we have a roomful of that type today. Our job – our calling – is to help the best leaders frame the story of what great leadership means and what it stands for. Because we need leadership from our global corporate leaders now more than ever.

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How to be Funny in French

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(C’est incroyable, mais hier j’étais drôle en français.)

I started studying French in 7th Grade, or maybe it was 6th. It’s hard to tell because it was the year my parents moved us to Australia and enrolled me in The Peninsula School, a few miles south of the last train stop in Frankston, outside of Melbourne. When I left California it was summer and when we arrived in Melbourne it was winter and the middle of the school year. So I was put in a class with the other 12-year olds. The terminology of naming classes (or “forms”) was so untranslatable to the American system, that I never figured out what grade I was in. And besides, I had tougher things to figure out. Like French.

Frankston, where we lived, was a tough beach town where, just a year before, Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner had come to film a Stanley Kramer movie about a post-nuclear war world called On The Beach. If you can find the film, you can see footage of Peck coming out of the train station and striding along the parade of shops across the street, playing the part of the American submarine captain who had found Melbourne and Port Phillip Bay as the last remaining outpost of human life, where everyone was counting the days until the slow-moving belt of radioactive fallout reached that far south and put the last lights out.

The beach of the title has a double meaning. It refers to the little beach that was down the cliff at the end of our street, where the Mount Eliza Sailing Club was located and where, in the movie, Peck and Taylor begin their love affair. But it also refers to the old Navy term for a captain who no longer has a command: he’s on the beach. Peck still had a nuclear submarine, but who cared anymore? There was no place to go but where they were.

The movie is memorable for the portrayal of people waiting to die and trying to cheat death with danger. Dangerous drinking, dangerous liaisons and dangerous driving. The hardest part of the film to watch, at least for me, is the part when everyone goes out to the Phillip Island racetrack and proceeds to destroy a collection of Jaguars, Mercedes and other highly collectable sports cars that today would be worth a fortune. As I remember, Fred Astaire, in particular, does unspeakable things to a bathtub Porsche. It’s hard to take.

So was French. In those days, in what was essentially a British prep school, the teaching of French was presented as a kind of intensive Chinese water torture designed to destroy normal brain function. It was taught as a succession of impossible tasks which, if you succeeded in each of them, would earn you great social distinction but leave you tongue-tied and bug-eyed in response to anyone who asked you a question in that language.

First, as I remember, we were given the six or seven verbs in French which followed the rules. These were called “regular verbs” or “verbes réguliers.” That everything in French was backwards was an early warning sign. Next, you had to memorize the “irregular verbs.” In French, there are a myriad of those, myriad being the Greek word for a number greater than 10,000. Beyond which, who’s counting?

Learning those verbs – or more or less not learning them – consisted of chanting them out loud as a group. “Je suis, tu es, il est, nous sommes, vous avez …” No, wait, “avez” is a whole other stream of misery. “J’ai, tu as, il a, nous avons, vous avez, ils ont.”

“Ont?” Where did that come from?

Given that we had only an hour of French a day, the complete futility of the project seemed as likely as putting a man on the Moon, which the television announced our President Kennedy said America was going to do and which the headmaster of my school, the Hon. Dudley Barrington Clark, said would never happen. He said it with a knowing smirk.

Learning cricket was easier than French. If the ball comes to you, throw it back to someone. Learning Australian Rules Football was harder. Aussie Rules resembles polo without horses and is based around a philosophical conundrum I could never understand called, “Offsides.” What does offsides mean? I have no idea, it was all French to me.

Once it was clear we would never actually internalize French’s verbal irregularities, they made us memorize French nouns, adverbs and adjectives. I later learned there are some easy rules to help with all that but no one ever told us about those devices, or maybe they hadn’t figured them out yet. Because here’s the glorious secret of French I never realized until many, many years later: French is easy.

About 70% of English words are actually French. So if you speak English, you’re almost three-quarters of the way there. All you need to know are a handful of easy rules. And +/- 105 irregular verbs.

Here’s a rule: if a noun ends in –ion, it’s probably the same word in French. Just pronounce it like Charles Boyer overacting and you’re at your destination (des-tin-a-SHE-own).

Here’s another rule: if a word ends in -e, you don’t pronounce the e, you end on the consonant before it (except in 423 specific cases which you’ll have to memorize). If it doesn’t end in –e, you’re screwed. You now have a word you can begin but not finish. You say the first part of it and then let the rest hang in the air, kind of like you someone punched you in the throat.

Years later, I found out there’s a simple mnemonic device to help you remember which consonants you can end a word with: it’s careful. If a word ends in c, r, f or l, you’re good to go. How come no one ever told us that? Honestly, I don’t think they’d gone that far themselves. Not even the French knew that one.

We eventually returned to California, where the little I’d finally learned about Aussie Rules simply emphasized the irrelevance of my teenage self. I studied French through high-school and into college and, in time, enough of the words lodged in my head that I began to be able to form some of them into sentences, like “J’ai une rhume incroyable” which means, “I have a room in Croyden.”

When I was 19, I decided to drop out of school and go to Oslo to get a job doing something that didn’t require me to memorize anything, which is how I ended up drinking Stella Artois in a bar in Brussels and hitch-hiking to Paris. That’s where I learned I’d spent seven years studying a type of French that no one in France understood. Whenever I opened my mouth, I was ruled offsides.

Here’s how I finally learned to speak French: I hitchhiked to Morocco. In Morocco, a former French colony, lots of normal people speak French as a second language, which means they pronounce individual words in a logical sequence, unlike Parisians, who speak like someone pressed their fast forward button four times.

One night, I was sitting in a roomful of charming bohemian acquaintances somewhere off the Djem-El-Nah in the old quarter of Marrakesh when someone handed me a little pill.

“What’s that?”


“Oh, OK.”

When you take a Dex tablet, lots of fun things happen. You can drive an 18-wheeler all the way from Amarillo to Santa Monica without a stopping. You can leap up and do a thousand jumping jacks. Or you can do what I did, which is you can start talking.

When I started talking, there were about 15 people in the room. Some hours later, I noticed I had cleared the room. So, still talking,I went downstairs and hit the streets. And since no one I could find spoke English, I started speaking French.

I talked to the street kids and the shopkeepers. I ran in to a man I’d bought a vest from and stayed up all night with him and his brother, holding court in my fascinating way, all in French. I don’t know if they understood a word I said, but I did. And that’s what counted. Released from my normal inhibitions, I was talking the talk. Or however you say that in French.

Over the years, I returned to France many times. If I was there long enough, I would sometimes dream in French. But there was still a troubling problem: I was good at blurting out a few charming pleasantries and maybe a question in French, with an accent that was good enough to pass. But when the person I was talking to started to answer, I had no idea (aucune idée) what they were saying. Rien, zip, nada. I was simply lost.

So that brings me to yesterday, the day I made people laugh in French. I was in Montreal getting ready to speak at a conference at Concordia University and asked a woman in the Communications department if she could help me with something in French. I wanted to start my talk in French as a courtesy to my hosts and thought if I said something self-deprecating, it would be a nice way to start.

I told her what I wanted to say, in French, and she looked at me with a kind of astonished look on her face.

“No good?”

“No, that was really good. I’m surprised.” She said my accent was good, too. “When Americans speak French, they have such sweet accents.”

Which is not, I’m told, something you can say for some French-Canadians. After I returned to Paris from Marrakech, I palled around with a couple of guys from Quebec. When they spoke French, I had to translate what they said for the Parisians who were trying, not very hard, to understand them.

When I got up in front of the conference to speak, I dove into my French introduction.

“Allez, on-y-va,” I started off, calling the room to attention. “Je suis heureux de vous voir. Je m’appelle Dain Dunston, je suis écrivain et entraîneur exécutif. Je voudrais vous parler en français, mais il y a un probleme … moi, je parle français assez bien pour commencer un conversation mais pas assez bien pour le terminer.”

Then I translated. “For the rest of you,” I said, “I just explained that after years of intensive study, I speak French well enough to get into a conversation … but not well enough to get out of one. “

The punchline got the laugh I expected and it was only when I was in the car to the airport did it sink in that when I said it in French, it got the same laugh in the same place, and just as strong. To my amazement, I had been funny in French which, if you’ve ever heard a French joke, is not that easy. And when those people laughed, there was no misunderstanding what they were telling me: they got what I was trying to say.

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