I’m not sure when this started, but over the past few years I’ve been introduced as a “Thought Leader”. At first, it was flattering. Wow, a ‘Thought Leader’! I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it sounded cool. You mean, I’m a ‘Thought Leader’ like Steve Jobs? Well, slow down Sparky, not quite like Steve Jobs. Oh!? Than a Thought Leader like whom? (The thought leader in me wants to ‘who’, not ‘whom’, but something tells me my blogger thought leader friends will tell me I should have used ‘whom’, but knowing I used ‘whom’ at all means, it’s probably wrong!)
That’s when it hit me. Thought Leaders come in many different sizes and shapes. I wasn’t a great Thought Leader of our generation. I was more of a great Thought Leader at that specific moment, in a very narrow segment of ideas and knowledge. Context is everything.
Let’s face it, we all have different perceptions of who and what we believe to be Thought Leadership. Here are my Faces of Thought Leadership:
1. The Thought Righter. This is a Thought Leader that you agree with. You believe they are Thought Leader because you agree with what they are saying, so they must be a leader!
2. The Thought Stayer. This is a Thought Leader who has been around for a long time. Well, they’ve been in the industry for thirty years, they must be a Thought Leader at this point!
3. The Thought Thinks Differently Than Everyone Else. Yep, this person just thinks differently, thus they are Thought Leader. This is probably what a lot of people believe is ‘true’ thought leadership (Leading thought, thus they are thinking it before you).
4. The Thought Best Practicer. This is conference thought leadership at its best. It’s not really thought leadership, it’s thought leadership from five years ago. It’s now just popular thought leadership.
5. The Thought I Work For A Cool Company. If you work for a cool company you automatically garner status of thought leadership, when in actuality, you might be a “Thought Idiot”. I won’t give you an example, you know who these folks are.
6. The Thought Innovator. This is a person who believes everything is perpetually broken and they must fix it. “You know what is wrong with babies, they don’t come out of the womb talking and walking. If we just forced gestation to 218 weeks and planted electrodes into their brains we could be having babies that were as smart as Einstein!” Um, what!?
Thought leadership is a funny little silly thing. You can call yourself a “Thought Leader”, but that basically just informs everyone you’re not. If it is bestowed on you by someone else, they basically are defining what you are as a Thought Leader. Which can be dangerous, if you really aren’t that person.
I like to think of Thought Leaders as people who come up with ideas before everyone else but those ideas will eventually become popular belief. This means you are really only a Thought Leader in hindsight. Steve Jobs was a Thought Leader because he did things before others saw them, then they became wildly popular.
In this scenario, I had a chance to become a Thought Leader in Workplace Hugging, but then the pandemic hit and now I’ll be known as the Thought Leader who tried to kill workers by encouraging them to hug and catch the virus. It’s a fickle world…
Somehow “Influencer” in the HR/TA space has become a bad word. I know other “Thought Leader” “Influencer” types who refuse to call themselves this title, or also don’t want to be labeled as such. They’re okay with other socially acceptable titles: Analyst, Expert, make something up, it’s all the same. The reality is, it comes back to people wanting to be able to label you so they know how to describe you. I don’t think of it as bad or good.
The truth is, we are all selling something, and the person who tells you they are selling nothing is selling you the hardest. I might not be selling you a product or service, but you can damn be sure I’m trying to sell you on an idea at the very least. You can call me anything you like, as long as you’re calling me something, I’m probably doing it right.