Stop Telling People You’re a “Thought Leader” Because You’re Not

Embed from Getty Images
Is Thought Leadership Old Wine In New Bottles?

There are certain words/phrases that irk me to no end — thought leader or thought leadership is one of them. I cringe every time I see the words “thought leader” or “thought leadership” on a website or by a person’s name.

David Brooks wrote a satirical, op-ed piece in the New York Times in December 2013 titled, “The Thought Leader.” Describing the life of a “thought leader,” Brooks wrote:

“[The thought leader] doesn’t have students, but he does have clients. . . .Not armed with fascinating ideas but with the desire to have some, he launches off into the great struggle for attention.”

Origin of Thought Leadership

Alexander and Badings (2012) explained in their book “#Thought Leadership Tweet” that the term “thought leaders” originated from Joel Kurtzman while he was editor for Booz & Company’s strategy+business magazine. In “Thought Leaders,” Kurtzman traveled the world for two years, interviewing 10 (2 were interviewed by Glenn Rifkin, the book featured 12) leaders (e.g., executives, authors, professors) from across the globe on issues related to business strategy, growth, and HR.

Old Wine In New Bottles

Merely wrapping, repackaging, or pouring old wine into a new bottle does not make it “new wine.” It only means you’re reusing or repackaging an old or existing idea and calling it new.

If you read a thought leader’s writings today, you will rarely find references or citations to ideas he or she borrowed from. These thought leaders tend to take credit for ideas that are, in fact, not new but rather have been around for decades.

For these individuals, their notion of thought leadership is pouring old wine into a new bottle and calling it new wine. Giving themselves the label of being a thought leader and selling this idea to others adds to their pseudo credibility.

I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to be regarded as a thought leader?

What (and Who) Is a Thought Leader?

“Thought leaders advance the marketplace of ideas by positing actionable, commercially relevant, research-backed, new points of view.” -Liz Alexander and Craig Badings

Many consultants are calling themselves thought leaders in the hopes that others might view them as trusted advisors, experts, or even futurists. However, “‘thought leader’ is not a position you choose to adopt, it is bestowed on you by others” (Alexander and Badings, 2012, p. 14).*

*And yet, ironically, after writing that the title “thought leader” is bestowed upon us by others, Alexander and Badings then said, “individual thought leaders are in plentiful supply” but because companies struggle to establish their thought leadership, that was the reason for them [Alexander and Badings] to write a book to help organizations design and implement a thought leadership campaign (their “proven, five-stage ‘Thought Leadership BluePrint.’”).

Not Thought Leaders, Thought Regurgitators

No matter how hard people convince themselves they’re a thought leader, in all likelihood, they’re not. Most people are not thought leaders. Regurgitating old ideas and gift-wrapping them using fancy, new decorative paper (no matter how nice) does not change the fact that you have not come up with a unique and innovative idea.

I love this quote from an article by Cheryl Kim in the Financial Post.

[M]ost people talking about thought leadership have no clue what it means. And most content labeled as ‘thought leadership’ is actually missing the elements of both ‘thought’ and ‘leadership’. -Cheryl Kim

She goes on to say:

“Thought leaders are defined as such because they articulate a problem about which others haven’t spoken, or because they present a novel approach to solving it. Thought leaders change the way people think and what they do. The best thought leaders are actually trying to address a problem or issue at hand — not just talk about it.” -Cheryl Kim

In their coverage of organization development and summarizing the thinking of some OD leaders, William Rothwell and Roland Sullivan (2005) said this:

“[M]uch of contemporary thinking is not truly new and is a trendy version of previous ideas and practices rather than breakthrough in nature” (p. 178).

In his book, Psychology in Organizations: The Social Identity Approach, Haslam (2004) quoted McGregor as saying:

“What sometimes appear to be new strategies – decentralization, management by objective, consultative supervision, ‘democratic’ leadership – are usually but old wine in new bottles” (p. 231, citing Pinder, 1984, p. 42).

Are Curators of Ideas & Synthesizers of Information Thought Leaders?

Dorie Clark, in an HBR article, cites Des Dearlove (co-founder of Thinkers50, a global ranking of management thinkers) in explaining that some thought leaders are actually curators of ideas and synthesizers of information:

Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Goleman [are] examples of thought leaders who are actually “synthesizers” of information. Says Dearlove, “These guys bring communication skills and an ability to bring complex ideas and make something out of them, but it’s not their [original] research.”

Some Criteria for “Thought Leadership”

Daniel Rasmus wrote a nice article in Fast Company titled, “The Golden Rules For Creating Thoughtful Thought Leadership.” In it, he outlined 11 rules to create and elevate thought leadership:

  1. Don’t sell anything except ideas.
  2. Always give it away.
  3. Have a unique perspective.
  4. Focus on one thing at a time.
  5. Address a specific audience.
  6. Get involved.
  7. Admit what you don’t know.
  8. Make your audience feel smarter.
  9. Market thought leadership like a product.
  10. Hire thought leaders.
  11. Thought leaders should be thoughtful leaders.

Takeaway: Calling yourself a thought leader doesn’t make you one, neither does having a fancy degree, certification, or job title.

“Just because you have a degree from a top university, you’re CEO of a company or you are certified to teach a certain topic doesn’t make you a thought leader.” -Denise Brosseau

“Thought Leaders move and inspire others with innovative ideas, turn those ideas into reality, then create a dedicated group of friends, fans and followers to help them replicate and scale those ideas into sustainable change.”Denise Brosseau

I love what Denise said about a thought leader needing to be patient while possessing the knowledge, expertise, and commitment to put themselves and their reputation on the line:

“[N]ot just anyone can be a thought leader. Thought leadership takes time (sometimes years); knowledge and expertise in a particular niche; a certain level of commitment and a willingness to buck the status quo or the way things have always been done.”Denise Brosseau

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership Advisor & Talent Development Consultant

References

Alexander, L., & Badings, C. (2012). #Thought Leadership Tweet. Cupertino, CA: THINKaha.

Brooks, D. (2013, December). The thought leader. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/17/opinion/brooks-the-thought-leader.html

Brosseau, D. (2015). Thought Leadership Lab. What is a Thought Leader? FAQ. Retrieved from http://www.thoughtleadershiplab.com/Resources/WhatIsaThoughtLeader

Brosseau, D. (2015). Thought Leadership Lab. What is Thought Leadership? Retrieved from
http://blog.thoughtleadershiplab.com/what-is-thought-leadership

Haslam, S. A. (2004). Psychology in organizations: The social identity approach (2nd ed.). London, England: Sage.

Kim, C. (2014, March). Think you’re a thought leader? You’re probably wrong… but here are 3 ways to become one. Financial Post. Retrieved from http://business.financialpost.com/executive/leadership/think-youre-a-thought-leader-youre-probably-wrong-but-here-are-3-ways-to-become-one

Kurtzman, J. (1998). Thought leaders: Insights on the future of business. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pinder, C.C. (1984). Work motivation: Theory, issues and applications. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

Rasmus, D. W. (2012, December). The golden rules for creating thoughtful thought leadership. Fast Company. Retrieved from http://www.fastcompany.com/3003897/golden-rules-creating-thoughtful-thought-leadership

Rothwell, W. J., Sullivan, R. L. (Eds.) (2005). Practicing organization development: A guide for consultants (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.