Monday, March 17, 2014
What's a Thought Leader?
Wise and worldly readers, is there a coherent meaning to the term thought leader that I’m missing? (And what is its opposite? I’ve heard the term “thoughtless leader” in private, but never in public.) Does the term make more sense than this?
The "thought" in the term isn't about the act of thinking, it's about providing pre-chewed ideas to be applied, ready-made lenses to view the world. The idea is that a "thought leader" is one who convinces people to use his or her particular framework to understand their problems.
From my understanding, the difference between "public intellectual" and "thought leader" is that the PI is supposed to provide context and understanding, and possibly suggest ways to act in a given situation, while a TL provides little to no context and provides a way to act in a given situation. PIs ask you to engage with the issue, TLs ask you to follow them and do as they advise.
They aren't clean categories -- you can overlap -- but I think that's the nut of it. Jenny McCarthy is a "thought leader," even if it's a dangerous and stupid thought, because she's trying to get people to use her lens on the world. Mark Zuckerberg may not be, because he's not out to inflict a worldview upon people. (Well, maybe he is, I don't pay attention to the man.)
And it's a title you can give anybody who has or allegedly has influence on others, given the term's magnificent vagueness.
Thought leaders have insights that they promote, sometimes extraordinary insights. Their insights change the way we think about the world, hence the leadership. Gordon Moore was a thought leader. Jeremy Seigel still is a thought leader in the investment arena. Ray Kurzweil has been a remarkable thought leader, Zuckerberg is not a thought leader at all.
This comes down to "know it when I see it." Most of the speakers at TED talks I've heard are very good examples of less famous thought leaders.
I see strong similarities between the second type of opinion leader and the vast majority of business consultants / efficiency experts / pedagogy specialists / self-help gurus. And there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that, except perhaps for the squandering of resources in pseudo-activity, but conflict is bound to arise when they move outside their group and Dunning-Kruger kicks in.