Judging by my twitter feed, and the number of ‘How to be a thought leader’ type articles that proliferate there, any number of folk in the business world are panting to be acclaimed as thought leaders.
Why? Why ever would you want to do that?
Why be a thought leader? Why not be a thought facilitator, a thought inspirer, a thought nurturer, a thought conceiver, a thought imaginer, a thought creator, a thought explorer, a thought catalyst, a thought sharer?
There will be people out there who would argue that these things are actually what a thought leader is, and that is a valid point.
But I have always considered the term ‘thought leader’ to be a loathsome one, a choice of words that is distorting and unhelpful. Maybe I am just quibbling about semantics, but words are powerful and labels can be limiting.
Being a thought leader implies that you must have thought followers, that you are the alpha of thought havers with a whole lot of beta thinkers gazing up at you on your pedestal in awe. It implies that you have scrambled to the top of some thought having community’s hierarchy.
But thoughts don’t have truck with any such thing.
Great and interesting thoughts arise in ways that are messy, raw, joyful or painful. They may be the result of deep considered thinking, careful and disciplined research, creative experimentation, drunkenness or sudden flashes of insight; often a mixture of all of these*. To align the having of thoughts with language that suggests the careful arranging of a hierarchy, akin to the tidy process of earning a promotion or the brutal machinations of kingmaking, feels wrong to me; distasteful but a little silly.
I am not having a go at you if you have been proclaimed a Thought Leader.
I have encountered a few Thought Leaders through dialogue on twitter and or face to face. Let me be clear: I am not condemning these people. From my interactions with them I get the impression that they are lovely, lovely, lovely people, very open to, and marked by curiosity with, others and their thoughts. And I am quite sure they didn’t hanker after the title of thought leader for themselves. It was assigned to them in various articles and ‘Top 10’ lists by others. I am even happy for them, genuinely pleased that they have been so acclaimed and elevated by their peers for the originality of their thinking.
But if you are hungrily eyeing that place on the pedestal, and avidly reading the ‘How to position yourself as a thought leader’ articles (notepad, pen and fluro marker at the ready), when are you going to find the time to have those original thoughts? This thought hierarchy you want to be leader of is an illusory construct, arbitrarily held in place by the psyche of an industry that thinks in terms of authority, prestige and power. Why, if you want to be active in the realm of ‘thought’ (and yes, I do know how wanky that sounds, apologies), are you giving yourself over to this particular piece of groupthink (a state of being that is notorious for blocking mature and / or interesting thought)?
Deciding that you’re gunna be a thought leader, that you’re going to ‘position’ yourself above your peers, smacks of a lack of originality and a compensatory need for status in a prestige hungry world. This in turn suggests a panting regard for whatever current groupthink designates as a desirable position of authority. Which means that the Thought Leader aspirants are somewhat lacking the ability to think independently of groupthink, that they are squeamish about turning their backs on it. Lack of independent thinking + lack of originality = Thought Leader? Nuh. Doesn’t work. A self-defeating proposition if ever I saw one.
Why not just be a thought lover instead?
Revel in the thoughts of yourself and others, online and off. If you are already doing this, then don’t sell yourself short by talking about your desire to be a Thought Leader. Choose a descriptor that lets people know that yours is a more generous position, that you don’t wish to establish a situation where others (and their thoughts) are relegated to a level of regard below your own.
Promiscuously fall in love with your thoughts and the thoughts of others. You will never want for great company. Thought lovers elicit the companionship, respect, and interest of other thinkers. They find themselves embedded in alliances of fascinating people, and in the path of ideas and insights that are stimulating, challenging, unexpected and even profound. People beat a path to their door for the support they know that thought lovers will give.
Be a thought lover. You’ll have more fun. You might even have so much fun that you forget all about your hunger for prestige. This will clear the brain wonderfully and you’ll have terrific thoughts; hungry ego creates such static.
*Give or take a bit of drunkenness, depending on your habits.
UPDATE: @GallopingSkirt, aware that I had written this blog, tweeted a link to me of this really great article on Firebrand Talent’s website – ‘Thought leadership is an attribution, not an aspiration’. If you liked my blog you might also enjoy this.