Last year I was part of Thought Leaders Business School. I undertook this program to help me figure out how to build an independent business practice where I help others whom I want to choose to work with to create value in my field based on my expertise, insight and experience. However, I didn’t tell a lot of people I was undertaking it. I felt uncomfortable about the ‘Thought Leader’ part of the title. I was concerned that because I was undertaking the program it would sound like I was wanting to claim the title of ‘Thought Leader’ for myself. It’s a label that has a lot of negative connotations if someone applies it to themselves, and it made me cringe a little.
A recent post by Helen Blunden titled You Are Not a Thought Leader touched a nerve with me. She described how she had “begun to tire of the self-claimed accolades of “thought leadership” ” which she characterises as being about people building a following through publishing and speaking in order to gain credibility and a reputation in their field. I had to read her post a few times to get beyond my emotional reaction and see that it is the superficial reputation-building through slick marketing that she is criticising. Her response is for people to build credibility through action, and to let their body of work and the impact that it makes on others be the basis of their reputation.
I agree with Helen’s view that credibility and reputation need to be earned through valuable contribution. However, we live in a society with a bias to action and we struggle to make enough time and space to think. The success of Nancy Kline’s book series ‘Time To Think’ is indicative of how we struggle to create conditions conducive to thinking. There are people who make the time and effort to think deeply in a way that challenges the status quo who make a valuable contribution and impact upon others. Harold Jarche’s body of work on Personal Knowledge Mastery and Jane Hart’s on Modern Workplace Learning are examples of this.
A month after Helen’s post I came Dr Liz Alexander’s perspective on thought leadership. This was via one of Tanmay Vora’s wonderful sketch-notes, which he created after interviewing Dr Alexander about her book on thought leadership. Her definition of a thought leader is someone who disrupts others habitual approaches to issues that concern organisations, industries or society at large. Like Helen, she asserts that if you are calling yourself a thought leader you most likely are not one. “It is other’s assessment based on your ability to shift their thinking.”
I’ll leave you to read Tanmay’s interview with Dr Alexander for yourself. What struck a chord with me was the spirit of intent she ascribes to thought leadership – that it’s about curiousity, courage, and challenging established points of view in order to provoke meaningful change. Ironically, this is a spirit I see in Helen. It is also a description that would make me comfortable to one day truly earn in the eyes of others.
(Please have no doubt that this post is not a disguised plea for others to tell me I am a thought leader. Think of it more as a post exploring my aspiration to become a much better thinker in my field so that I may be part of a network of people who are contributing to positive change.)