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?