Is Thought Leadership in Trouble?

I’ve encountered a lot of skepticism about thought leadership this month.

  • An article in the New Republic says (among other things) that thought leaders are people who promote weak ideas with great fanfare for big money.
  • A senior healthcare expert writes about how thought leaders such as he can sometimes be manipulated by companies for marketing purposes.
  • A piece in the excellent CBInsights newsletter points out how many successful startup founders and investors use their money and fame to set themselves up as thought leaders and promote half-baked solutions to universal problems, abetted by their acolytes.
  • My daughter reports that she recently left a lunch meeting at her architecture firm because the self-appointed thought leader addressing the room was full of twaddle. (But she ate the free lunch first; no fool, she.)

So, are thought leaders shallow pseudo-intellectuals peddling punditry to fools for a fee? To answer that, it seems to me one must address the three questions nestled inside it:

  1. Are thought leaders mercenaries?
  2. Are their disciples gullible?
  3. Are they intellectual lightweights?

1. Are thought leaders mercenaries?

Yes. Most people we work with want to publish their expertise to gain fame, money, or both (since the first leads to the second). As individuals, or as firms, thought leaders want to establish a reputation for helping their clients solve daunting problems. And, typically they work for large organizations that serve other large organizations. As David Sessions points out in the New Republic, “public intellectuals,” such as academics, may have loftier motivations, such as furthering human understanding. While the academic environment can be ego-ridden and political, making money need not be a researcher’s primary goal. But in B2B thought leadership, it often is. Therefore, we should be skeptical of thought leaders’ assertions; they make them for a reason.

2. Are thought leaders’ followers gullible?

Many, yes. As Jill Lepore pointed out in her celebrated take-down of Clay Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation, a veritable industry of acolytes, imitators, and hucksters perpetuated and amplified his ideas. On the other hand, in the corporate world, big investment decisions receive a lot of scrutiny before they are made. I doubt many companies have bet their future on disruptive innovation (or any other big idea of the last 30 years). Big companies tend first to test something new in a limited way to contain the risk. So, the people that matter might not be as gullible as critics suggest.

3. Are thought leaders intellectual lightweights?

Certainly, many who’d like to earn the sobriquet do not have the expertise or experience to support it. Others do. We probably talk half the people bringing us ideas and drafts out of trying to publish them, usually because what they want to say is not new, or, if it is, they do not have evidence to support it. The remaining half generally need some help to clarify their logic, or to add some examples, for instance, for their material to be publishable in a respected journal. And of those, I’d say about 20% are really good, meeting all of our standards for quality thought leadership and having the potential to make a substantial impact in the marketplace.

The label thought leader is like any other honorary title. Only a nitwit would award it to himself; my daughter’s thought-leading architect, for example. Those who are truly deserving, a Peter Drucker or a Noam Chomsky, would never presume to knight themselves. And thought-leading content is like anything created by people; there is good, bad and everything in-between. Whatever the field – business, academia or art, to name but three – the final responsibility for distinguishing the best from the rest is the observer’s.

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