Simon Terry

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So Long Thought Leaders. Thanks for all the Likes

Thought Leadership has become a boom industry.  Claims to thought leadership are everywhere. Some days it seems every second profile on Linkedin, Twitter or some other social media or traditional media channel is someone claiming thought leadership.  The TEDX movement has expanded the audiences for tightly packaged and highly engaging content. Content marketing has created an impetus for many to pursue thought leadership as a driver of their business success. An explosion of self-publishing has meant your own book is almost a required calling card in industry.

We have also seen the beginnings of a pushback on this overabundance of thought leadership. Australia has seen the fall of the CEO of a large membership organization when questions were raised around the level of investment that organization made in his personal thought leadership profile. When consultancies start to sell the idea that anyone can be a thought leader on a $1m income in few easy steps it is tempting to think we have reached the ‘shoeshine boy’ moment in the boom of thought leadership.

So You Are A Thought Leader?

I hear thought leader a lot. I have even been called one. Occasionally I have tried to use it, but I have given up on that designation because whenever, I hear it I have this reaction:

Many people use thought leader to describe themselves because they share thoughts. Too often both their thought and their leadership is open to real question. Sharing ideas in networks is the start, but hardly the end of thought leadership.

We should demand our thought leaders have actual insights into change in the world and a capability to influence on how others will execute that change. David Session’ The Rise of the Thought Leader in the New Republic contrasts the thought leader with traditional public intellectuals based in academic research. In the article, Sessions quotes Daniel Drezner, that thought leaders

“develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.”

A cursory examination of thought leadership demonstrates the challenges of discovering actual insight. Much of thought leadership is a careful packaging of self-evident platitudes. Much of the research that underpins it does not stand up to scrutiny.  I have shelves of business books, both published and self-published, that use the same businesses as examples for propositions across widely divergent domains. Usually the thought leader has had no actual involvement in that organization, they are merely interpreting public reports and enhancing the reporting with their own interviews to confirm a hypothesis.

Leadership is more than a claim to a hierarchical superiority over others (which is itself suspect in the realm of thought). True leadership is inspiring others to act for their betterment and the world’s by engaging with their drives and purposes. Leaders are not just visionaries with catchy phrases and three step plans. Real leaders engage in the hard pragmatic and practical work of ongoing change. Unfortunately many thought leaders eschew complexity, doubt or challenge because it interferes with the marketing pitch.

Our use of leadership in this context also confuses social media followership and entertainment audience gathering with actual leadership of action. We define ourselves by those whose ideas we choose to embrace. We may consume large amounts of thought as entertainment in many media formats. We can follow others for years without the slightest chance of their thoughts influencing any tangible action on our part. A real movement is not an audience led by a prophet, it is a self-governing community of action.

Evidence that the thought leader has contributed an original insight, that the thought actually contributes to any outcomes claimed and that the idea is applicable more widely by others is less common than you might think. With a strong emphasis on entertainment and emotional appeal, much of thought leadership leaves you with the cloying sugary aftertaste of fast food.  So let’s talk briefly about TED.

Let’s Talk about TED

TED has created some of the major global thought leaders and magnified the influence of others through online videos. There are undoubtedly great TED talks that bring attention to critical issues in world affairs, share important scientific breakthroughs or help people to move forward with better approaches to their lives.  The power of law of viewership of these great examples has also sustained a long-tail of weaker thought leadership.

The success of TED and its expansion though TEDX have come to define what a thought leader looks like for many people. The format has been widely copied across conferences as it appeals to attention spans and delivers entertaining and highly engaging talks when properly produced. I’ve delivered a TEDX style talk and I am always asked for one by conference organizers. The TED talk format is the gold standard. The format has become so predictable that even TEDX has engaged in parody:

It has become trendy to blame TED for its optimism, its simplicity, its more dubious talks and predictions, its evangelism, and much more. The reality is that TED talks and the copies in other forums are entertainment. We consume this entertainment in our quest for easy digestible ‘thought leadership’ and many race to be a part of the format because of the demand for this entertainment. If you want to scale your media appearances, consulting revenues and followership on social media, a successful TEDX talk still offers a major step forward. TEDX can help you gather your own cluster of believers.

Let’s Move Beyond Thought Followership

In an era of ‘fake news’, thought followership is one of the biggest problems in society. Dividing our society up into rotating clusters of believers is doing little to help us to create workable civil societies into the future and to address major social issues. Our civil societies need real conversation and to find the working common ground of actual change. Echo chambers, simple messaging and entertaining bluster are in abundant supply. We need the practical leadership of change in our communities.

We need a new scepticism in the ideas we consume, who we follow and the entertainers we choose to promote.

Self-governing Communities of Action

Many of us have flirted with thought leadership because it seemed to offer opportunities of status, fame and influence. We want an opportunity to improve our hierarchical position and thought leadership seemed a way to make that happen. Sadly, the power law of thought leadership consumption means success is harder and a longer term proposition than its promoters will suggest.

A better way forward is purposeful action. We can each get the rewards of taking small steps to influence change directly ourselves. Our experiments will help us learn far more on what needs to be done. Connecting with others and collaborating on change provides opportunities for far greater social and emotional rewards and a much greater impact than thought leadership. We need to start to value community leadership as much if not more so than thought leadership. If anything is going to make our communities better, it is not thought leadership, it is small self-governing communities of action reaching out across society to make meaningful and purposeful change.

So what movement are you starting today? Just remember don’t start with the blogpost, the talk or the book, start with action.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead


9 Comments

  1. tanyalau says:

    Such a well articulated & insightful piece of writing Simon, really resonated with me. Framing consumption of ‘thought leadership’ as easily digestible entertainment is very astute. I love how you have contrasted thought leadership with true leadership:

    “True leadership is inspiring others to act for their betterment and the world’s by engaging with their drives and purposes. Leaders are not just visionaries with catchy phrases and three step plans. Real leaders engage in the hard pragmatic and practical work of ongoing change. Unfortunately many thought leaders eschew complexity, doubt or challenge because it interferes with the marketing pitch”.

    Really love your focus on practical action focused on purposeful change in communities.

    Thanks for cutting through the hyperbole & hype with such clarity!

  2. […] Politely trash thought leadership and you get a big reaction of support. You will also discover a lot of similar frustration. However, these responses highlight how closely the message skirts the line of being merely entertaining thought leadership (a TEDX talk awaits me somewhere). If we are to stay true to the message of that post, we move beyond thought leadership when we share stories of the benefits of the real practice of change to inspire others. This is critically important in the domain of my work, helping organizations change the way they work. […]

  3. […] Rarely. We need new models of advocacy for much of the future of work agenda and it begins not with thought leadership but with the hard yards of practice and new stories to […]

  4. […] the weekend I came across multiple pieces of ‘thought leadership‘ describing the ideal time to wake up for a successful life. One even prompted an absurd […]

  5. Edyn Roberts says:

    First, thank you for writing this. Second, as far as I’m concerned, any piece that uses something from the Princess Bride…awesome if just for that. (Yes, I appreciate the irony of what I just wrote…it’s a joke, lol). This is an interesting idea that you expound on. I am part of a few communities that are maybe communities of consuming rather than acting and you articulate very well for me, some of the challenges of those. Most of them are indeed self proclaimed “thought leaders” who have something to sell…usually a book, MasterClass, Coaching or the like, on something they are an expert on. I had a staffer that worked on my team that went to see Oprah’s live Master Class (not sure that’s what it is, but the large group event that people spend a lot of money to attend). She took a note book and was very excited by the things she heard that could change her lilfe. But…it didn’t. Because she failed to realize that it is up to her, not Oprah to change her life, and the difference is action. I often ask habitual conference goers who never seem to act on anything what the difference is between say Oprah or Tony Robbins is from them. The answer is usually around being smarter. The real answer, as far as I’m concerned, is that they ACT to move their thing forward (and that’s a business, not an idea necessarily), rather than sitting in front of the tv or otherwise “wasting” time. If you are sitting on the coach watching Oprah, you aren’t acting to move yourself forward. Again, great article…count yourself a thought leader, because I know how I’m going to actually use this with my team.

    • simongterry says:

      Thanks Edyn. Wonderful to hear that this is something that can help you to prompt action and change. Will keep weaving Princess Bride into the odd post.

  6. […] being used to support and reinforce these other directions in social culture.  We already can see the risk of rotating groups of true believers in many social contexts.  The twentieth century to today shows that in many societies that use of technology and economic […]

  7. […] Thought leaders everywhere on the internet want to tell you what ‘successful people’ do. There is no such thing as ‘successful people’.  […]

  8. […] is not alone in this confusion. Thought Leadership and other forms of punditry also shows a similar confusion. The accuracy or effectiveness of advice to better society now […]

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