Thinking and Rethinking Thought Leadership
It is Long Past Time to Retire this Overused, Wrongly Applied, and Downright Stupid Concept
Thought Leader - Definition
A thought leader is an individual or firm (agency) that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. In the sciences or other highly technical fields this makes sense though I still find it mostly unhelpful. It is usually more of an indicator of ego than actual accomplishment with the so called “thought leaders” mostly (though not always) self anointed (or anointed by a small group of other self anointed thought leaders) as such.
That said when applied to other areas it makes much less sense. For example in the case of a “thought leadership agency for other founders and C-suite executives.” In other words an agency that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded, agency. A thought leadership agency for other thought leaders. Clearly this is the place to be for thought leaders who are sick and tired of thinking so much about thought leadership, and just want to let a different thought leader do their thinking for them for once. All that thinking must get awfully tiring, especially when your constantly thinking leadership level thoughts, and not run of the mill line worker or at best middle management level thoughts. Perhaps these lazy thought leaders are simply wanting to be seen in the company of other thought leaders. But wouldn’t that make them followers? How can one be a thought leader and a thought follower all at the same time? It really blows my tiny (non thought leader?) mind. I guess I need to spend more time over in C-suite or with other founders instead of so much time in the lab, or with my clients, or in the library, or crunching numbers, or writing proposals, or papers, or doing any actual work that brings real value to my customers and thus ultimately to my business. I get it, C-suite execs bust their humps too. Believe it or not I happen to know and have even worked with some. They are all proven and tested leaders. Leaders of teams, leaders of people, leaders of things that are real and important to success in the long term (aka actual, real leadership).
This is a question I would suggest each would be thought leader ask him or herself. As many are no doubt business executives I will frame it in business terms so it will be easily relate-able
How much did you sell your last thought for?
You’ve never sold a thought you say? How interesting, perhaps that should clue you in to the value of a thought on the open market. It currently sits at its historic and fixed value of zero.
But I am just being silly of course, it’s not about the value of a thought but rather it is about the intellectual and other capabilities of the person and the value he or she can bring. So what is the point of thought leadership other than self aggrandizement and ego building?
I totally get it that it feels good to make oneself out to be something special. To be better or different than the average Joe or Jane. And if any so called “thought leader” truly is better or more talented or more skilled or more whatever than you or I, more power to him or her. I begrudge no one their talents and do not look upon anyone in a negative light because of their professional or personal success. I do get irritated though when those same persons feel the need to make up important sounding terms and invent fake categories of people for no apparent purpose other than proving to others just how great they truly are. Even worse are the ones that kowtow to them and cater to their every silly whim. The truly great leader (thought or actual) needs no such titles and seeks no such favors. They embody the ideals they believe in and practice, and egoism and self aggrandizement are concepts as foreign to them as giving up or standing down. If you want to lead then lead for real, don’t just think about it.
Second Thoughts About Thought Leadership
In the above section I lashed out hard against the concept of thought leadership. Ironically, it was written mostly from the gut and not the brain. I did not really think very deeply about the topic before writing it but after writing it and had not been able to stop thinking about it, and began to question some of the positions I took. It could be that my great annoyance at one tiny part of a specific article I was responding too (since deleted by the author so I can't link it, sorry) clouded my judgement, resulting in an unfair and unjustified attack on useful concept/term/thing (thought leadership).
It was the very first sentence in the article that annoyed me so greatly “I’m the CEO of Digital Press, a thought leadership agency for other founders and C-suite executives.” Read it out loud and then let it marinade in your brain for a bit. For me at least it was instantly irritating in so many ways. It has it all, the unspoken I’m definitely better than you cockiness, the bus-speak buzz words, the executive imprimatur, everything needed to guarantee pissing me off, distilled to perfection, and served up right out of the gate. Even with all that I might not have reacted so badly if it were not combined with one of the most cliche ridden banner photos of the young executive in action I have ever seen. There he sits in his pimped out ride driven by a chauffeur, wearing his perfectly tailored monogram sweater jacket, hipster haircut and facial hair perfectly coiffed, staring off into the distance deep in thought. No doubt thinking great leadership level thoughts for the day and planning all the thought leading still left to do tomorrow.
Suffice to stay it struck a chord with me and triggered a cascade of intense emotions including disgust and anger, and even a bit of jealousy. That feeling of jealousy made me even more angry and I berated myself severely for even entertaining for a second the notion that the scene pictured before me was one I should aspire to. Yuck.
In any case the article was dumb and basically consisted of Mr. Hipster Hair telling us that the reason he is so rich and successful is because he works constantly. People that work endless hours do not impress me in the slightest. In fact I typically find them to be time wasters who are poor time managers with weak organizational skills and a chronic inability to delegate. Many times this lack of ability to delegate stems from an inability or unwillingness to train others in the tasks where help is needed or could be used. None of these traits would be considered typical of “thought leaders”, or then again maybe they would. Who can say since no large or small scale study of any repute which described their shared characteristics has been published that I could find. This is yet another of the problems I have with the designation, it’s vagueness. The qualification(s) to be considered a thought leader seem to be only one, the fact that other people consider you one. Of course it helps if these “other’ people are thought leaders themselves. And the circle of thought leadership life is complete with each thought leader bestowing the divine title upon other people he or she knows that seem a lot like him or herself.
You know what? I retract what I said above. I was right the first time, thought leadership is a stupid concept with very little to nothing of value to add to the language other than another ego driven status indicator. Ban it.