The Game of Thought Leadership

What if thought leadership is just a game played for the experience and the attention?

Photo by Sebastian Voortman on

Last week on Twitter, I came across a discussion of NFTs as a potential online game. That discussion led to an intriguing analysis of the Qanon phenomenon in the US from a game designer. Reading the latter piece I could not miss the similarities to the practice of thought leadership.

I am critical of thought leadership as an abstract practice of influence. As I note in Mark LeBusque’s Simply Pratically Human podcast, much of that thought leadership has a bubblegum flavour, sweet and satisfying at first but ultimately bland and discarded. Thought leadership when practised at its most viral feels like a game. We see the characteristics of a game replicated in some of the common experiences of the genre.


So much of thought leadership depends on the connection between random things to build narratives of meaning. All the ex-post facto expositions of the value of strategies and actions that weren’t used are examples of this. Importantly, highly effective thought leadership often works because it sends people out in the world to make connections that aren’t there.

Eureka Effect

One reason that thought leaders rely so heavily on platitudes is that they want people to have the warm comfortable glow of recognition. Plus as you take your platitude out into the world you will discover lots of people that endorse it. Social proof is comforting.

Looking at the World Differently

If a thought leader can get you to see the world through their lens, then their influence grows. You will confirm the value of their vision as you go forward checking the world against their tests. Confirmation bias is real so there’s a great chance you will find what you looking for.

Proving what doesn’t exist

Pop psychology may have a reproduction crisis, but most good thought leadership is unfalsifiable. Try proving that it doesn’t work. The tests are either impossible or too complicated for the average person to be able to check.

A Knowing Inside Community in an Outside World

Thought leaders gain influence as the gain acolytes. It is therefore essential to distinguish the knowing inner community of followers from the wide world that has not yet realised the value of the thought leadership. The greater this distinction the more compelling the thought leader’s influence and the greater their ability to sustain a following. Stepping into some of the discussions from followers of common thought gurus can be an alienating experience. Harold Jarche has highlighted this in his discussion of ‘knights and mooks’.

The Payoff

Games have their rewards. For thought leaders the payoff is the ability to monetise their influence with a community of followers. There is always another book to sell, a course, a membership, or some next level of monetisation.

For that community, it can be an experience, a feeling of belonging, a sense of superiority or a degree of comfort that the world is more easily knowable and that success is more easily attainable. In large part the payoffs for followers are illusions, comforting illusions, but illusions nonetheless. What drives and sustains thought leadership industry is the returns to the thought leader and their facilitators.

Leading More than Thoughts

In a world that infinite scrolls on digital devices, it can feel comforting to be absorbed in compelling thoughts. Sharing these thoughts can reflect positively in one’s reputation and influence. However, leadership in our world demands more than thoughts. We need action and we need action at a collective scale. Entertainment will never take the place of real agency.

We are in desperate need of moving beyond stages, audiences, acclaim and all the other games. Let’s go and make changes to make this world a better place.

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