Monday, March 17, 2014


What's a Thought Leader?

What’s a thought leader?  And how do you know one when you see one?

I’d like to think that “thought leader” is the contemporary version of the public intellectual.  But the term isn’t usually used that way.  Public intellectuals, at their best, are broadly critical of existing political/social arrangements, typically in the name of some sort of preferred ideal.  And whether employed as academics or not, they’re usually scholars of something.  They can be full of themselves, ideologically blinkered, and subject to all the usual blind spots and human failings, but they’re supposed to bring a certain scholarly depth to the discussion.  And while they can be maddeningly arrogant and sweeping in their pronouncements, they at least aren’t afraid of big questions.  Thought leaders tend to be much more field-specific, and typically oriented more to construction than to analysis.

“Thought leader” isn’t exactly interchangeable with “famous” or “prominent,” either.  Lindsay Lohan is famous, but I wouldn’t call her a thought leader.  (Jenny McCarthy might be, in the realm of vaccination.  Thought leadership is not always a good thing.)  

Sometimes the term is thrown at entrepreneurs in creative industries, whether in tech, marketing, or fashion.  But that, too, strikes me as misplaced.  Entrepreneurship done right is admirable, but it’s much less about thought leadership than about seizing opportunities.  Mark Zuckerberg is a wildly successful entrepreneur, but I don’t think of him as a thought leader.  I once saw a locally prominent entrepreneur declare in a speech that “knowledge is useless unless you use it,” which I realized I simply could not top.  I’m guessing he would have rejected the term.

Some journalists get tagged as thought leaders, and I’ll admit being a bit more comfortable with that.  Anya Kamenetz, for example, has carved out a clear niche as a public voice in favor of de-institutionalizing higher education.  In politics, I could see Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow as versions of thought leaders.  They don’t run for office themselves, but they use their versions of journalism to try to sway the masses.  If politicians are surfers riding waves, O’Reilly and Maddow are beach engineers, trying to make the waves go in certain directions.

I’ve also seen the term applied as a sort of “entrepreneur emeritus” to people who attained prominence in business but then stepped away from operations.  It’s akin to a “vice chairman” position, a potentate without portfolio.  It’s a sort of consolation prize.

As a piece of English, the term “thought leader” manages to be simultaneously clinical and vague.  It’s not a natural phrase, in the sense of being something that people say in the course of daily conversation.  And it’s nowhere near as precise as, say, “historian” or “philosopher.”  

In corporate settings, it’s often used to identify public champions of particular business methods.  I’m thinking here of the Stephen Coveys and Jim Collinses of the world.  In that setting, though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it applied to the Juliet Schors or Barbara Ehrenreichs of the world.  It’s much more likely to attach to people with prescriptions how rather than to those with questions why.

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?  

I believe the key to parsing "Thought Leader" is to de-emphasize the first word and stress the second. It's not about thought, it's about leading. There are industry leaders, who shape the course industry takes; and there are thought leaders, who shape the way people think about things.

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.
I suggest that thought leaders should have expertise, not merely followers. Therefore, Jenny McCarthy would not be a thought leader in my book, she is rather a misguided ideologue.

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.
In my discipline, ethnomusicology, the role of "thought leader" (or "taste leader" or "opinion leader") occurs an environment of commodity capitalism, in which people form groups ("listening communities," "taste communities," "affinity groups"...) on the basis of what they consume. This practice is doubtless quite old (in European music, certainly going back at least to the rise of opera in the 17th century), but I think it has really taken off in the last century. In particular, the rise of the Internet has, in some respects, splintered the market for commodity culture, but at the same time made it possible for scattered individuals with similar interests to organize themselves into groups based on those interests. Individuals within the groups take on the role of leader based on their command of the language of taste and the appearance of expertise, and their ability to define the boundaries of the group. The ability to become a leader may be based on real knowledge in a particular field grounded in broader experience (Kurzweil is a good example), but it may also be based on mastery of in-group factoids, fluency of language, and limited competition for the position (Jenny McCarthy comes to mind, but you can easily troll any genre-specific popular culture forum to see similar types, very facile with the language of the in-group but rarely linking what they say outside accepted knowledge except to define the boundaries of the group).

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.
You should watch "How to Become and Information Security Thought Leader"; it's a cartoon video from a few years back and it says a lot about how people view "thought leadership."
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