What (if anything) is a “thought leader”?

Being a “thought leader” is the new, hot cliché of the decade. How can you tell if somebody really “leads thinking”, or if they just are showing a flash of previously concealed hubris, or simply trying to hitch a ride to where the action might be?

If somebody labels themselves as a “thought leader” in their blog, website, CV, or whatever, sniff the air carefully; it may only be an indication that a horse has recently passed by.

Others have spoken up on this phenomenon; I like comments posted by Sarah Mitchell (www.globalcopywriting.com), Trevor Young (www.trevoryoung.me), and others. Sarah puts it bluntly:

“Thought leaders and thought leadership have reached their sell-by date. If you’re selling yourself as a thought leader, you’re already losing audience because we’re all worn out by the phrase. We don’t believe you. So if thought leaders are dead (or should be) what does that leave?” (http://bit.ly/1BpY5VR)

Sarah, in her post, answers her question by developing a framework for “subject matter expert”. Doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it? For one thing, it has twice as many syllables, so is half as memorable. But I’m off the track.

We live in an age where “sound bites” have become “sound bytes”, and attention spans have shrunk to nanosecond territory. Real thinking, paradoxically, suffers, as it takes time to do that. I do think (moniker aside) that it is worth exploring what it takes to “lead” thinking in our fast-paced world. Here’s my list:

  1. Never call yourself a ‘thought leader’ even if you might be – for the reason Sarah Mitchell cites.
  2. If others call you that, send a copy to your mother, but otherwise vigorously deny it.
  3. Thought leaders have thought followers, and only the followers can bestow leadership.
  4. DO NOT copy others – that’s thought following. Or theft, if you pretend you thought it first.
  5. Learn from others, but chart your own course by synthesizing and extending multiple patterns of thought.
  6. Remember that thoughts are no more than preformed ideas. Ideas have no value unless they are supported by workable & beneficial implementation plans.
  7. The idea of “expert” has been around a long time. In adjective form, it implies that an “expert” is always connected to some kind of subject matter. Experts don’t exist in a vacuum unless we send them to outer space.
  8. Your track record of actual achievement in a specific subject matter area will convey expertise; you don’t have to hype it.
  9. So what’s an “expert”? – “x” is an unknown quantity; “spurt” is a drip under pressure.
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