My friend – and one of the Five Friends bloggers – Mark Sanborn wrote an excellent blog post last week titled “Why You Might Want to Stop Being a Thought Leader.” The premise is that maybe it is time to stop kidding ourselves that re-packaging and regurgitating someone else’s ideas makes us a thought leader.
I would like to take Mark’s premise one step further:
- If you call yourself a “thought leader,” you probably aren’t one.
- Speaking and writing a lot does not necessarily make you a thought leader. It can if you use those opportunities to say something different or add a useful insight. But you don’t get to be a thought leader because you repeatedly say the same basic idea the same basic way that others are saying it. That makes you a thought-aggregator not a thought leader.
The term “thought leader” came into use in the early 1990’s. Joel Kurtzman is credited as the first person to use the term while working as the editor-in-chief of Strategy & Business magazine at Booz & Company.
Since that time, every individual and company that wants to increase their perceived value in the marketplace has sought to become or even just claim to be a thought leader. The onslaught has been perpetuated by an entire industry of consultants, marketing firms, and PR companies who devote all of their energy positioning themselves to be the thought leaders on developing thought leaders.
If you want to have a successful career in that industry, the best counsel I can give you is to follow Mark Sanborn’s advice and hone your critical thinking skills. After that, work your ass off to make sure that there is substance beyond the sizzle in your work.
If you are buying the services of a thought leader, make sure that you are seeing beyond the hype. Promo reels can be the marketing version of the movie trailer for “Snakes On A Plane” – you see all of the good points without ever watching the entire feature.
The making and packaging of thought leaders is a machine that oils itself.* It does not and cannot stop. It is in search of a new star to drive up the charts. All of this is fueled by the desire of individuals to follow their passion and be important. It is the business equivalent of Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and Nicole Ritchie being famous for being famous.
David Books wrote an excellent piece about the life of a thought leader for the New York Times Op-Ed page. In it he describes a life cycle that ultimately ends with two past-their-prime thought leaders engaging in anonymous conversation while sitting in a prominent restaurant. They are lamenting about how things are falling apart. I’m pretty sure that they are complaining about all of the people who claim to be thought leaders who aren’t.
Meanwhile, the machine just added another quart of oil to itself by developing a new term for the post-thought leadership era.