Reflections

Staying Ahead & The Dilemma Of Thought Leadership

So Ellen Pao lost, and the media have moved on to more timely topics like… the Pope’s iPad selling for $30,500 and the re-appearance of the first lady of North Korea. I am still, however, thinking about an article that stood out for me during the Kleiner Perkins sexism trial – the one in Fortune (23 March 2015) – that highlighted that the venture capital employer focused on Pao’s lack of thought leadership as a key reason for her dismissal. The thing is that there was no clear definition of what constituted a thought leader worthy of promotion and no straightforward process of how one might earn that title.

If we could say that a thought leader is the result of the extent of a person’s opinions in the public arena, the Internet has bestowed us a generation of them. Intellectually, we are at our zenith. It doesn’t matter if anyone is listening. Of course, that is a ridiculous proposition, so it’s more than just having something to say and having the space to say it.

A 2012 Forbes article trying to define the term put it like this:

A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.

A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.

If we look closely at these definitions, a thought leader is recognised by popularity of reference. The greater the volume of endorsement, the more likelihood that someone is seen as a thought leader. There is no mention of quality, originality or contribution of the ideas being spouted. This is all assumed. We are relying on the wisdom of crowds to tell us where to look and how to separate the signal from the noise. Which is fine if you are looking to purchase a great read or visit a good restaurant, but surely cultural popularity should not be a measure of a person’s ability to lead our thinking.

If we look at history, people who we consider thought leaders today were not particular popular in their time. Their books wouldn’t make the New York Times bestseller list and you wouldn’t be seeing them at Davos. If they posted their ideas on LinkedIn, they may get more than a thousand views if they are lucky. We can go as far back as Tacitus, Montaigne, Kant, Marx and Foucault. Even as recent as today, if you look at the Financial Times’ Top 100 Thinkers List, most ‘Liked” is not something one associates with these personalities. Their reputations as leading thinkers have been earned without the reliance of being ‘Liked’ or shared.

In Pao’s case, an argument was made that being a thought leader ensures greater professional success. In today’s society you can even make a living out of being a thought leader, and lots of people do via selling webinars, e-books, podcasts, etc. So we deduce that to build a career one needs to develop points of view, write more blog posts, tweet more pithy liners, release our books and speak at more events.

Or do we?

I can understand that characteristics like charisma, passion and inspiration are qualities that make people persuasive and admirable – these are personality traits of generally successful people. These are behaviors that can be learnt. I am pretty sure they are not the same qualities that makes a person a thought leader. For me, the term suggests someone who is expansive and brave in their thinking. To lead means to stay ahead, which is very hard to do.

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