The Thought Leader’s New Clothes

“Thought Leaders” are the celebrities of mundane arts.  Whilst pop stars fill stadia and the Hollywood elite dazzle on the silver screen the world over, there are those that covet a decidedly smaller stage.  Whilst the children of ancient Athens grew up admiring the philosophers of the Agora, and the youth of the Renaissance had their heroes in Humanists, contemporary times leave a multitude of more space amidst the noise to glean slithers of attention to feast upon.

Like most corporate speak the term started out with good intentions, but has experienced a transition into a shorthand for something different. A thought leader used to mean an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognise as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialisation, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organisation for said expertise.  Then time passed and people heard the call of a bandwagon on which to jump.  Now maybe a better definition might be “A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognised as such”.  Here’s the wrinkle, the introduction of the potential for profit has attracted a great deal more people and with it a growing set of self-assured presenters ready to step into the wake of those who came before.  Through this process of Chinese whispers, the role and practice of “thought leader” has become codified. Readily available to be consumed and copied for a next generation ready to blog, youtube, and present their way into your consciousness.

It’s now very easy to attain a “Thought Leaderness” without ever having to have a thought worth following.  Imagine a man on stage, a large screen offers some illumination.  He makes a list with his fingers, making us believe there has been a cogent point.  A few numbers on the screen behind him, a pause for effect and we’re done.  An audience is left none the wiser but still offers applause in case everybody else heard the amazing point they might have missed. Beware of anecdotes and anec-data, conversational laughter, meaningless numbers, repeated phrases, changes in tone of voice, and cues to applaud. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at play here.  Those that run events book the speakers and presenters they see at other events and the cycle continues.  The self promotion makes these people even easier to find and most of the signal is eclipsed by increasingly irrelevant noise.  The audiences see the same faces touting a different cure-all each time and the mantle of “expert” means sales pitch masked as expert insight continues the same cycle.

Despite a growing sense of a lack of critical thought in the wholesale acceptance of opinion or sales pitch, there are some telltale patterns to look out for.

A lot of presenters choose to present the ideas of others.  Some don’t immediately offer credit for those ideas but that’s just run of the mill plagiarism.  A more insidious form of is to credit a diluted form of the ideas of many others – and attain some post-hoc reflected glory. There’s a thin, watery glory soup to dispense just from having been the one who introduced people to a new idea or thesis. When it is done well this curation is excellent but without deference it becomes problematic.  It’s all too easy to throw in a graph or two, distill some more impressive research into a soundbite then add a little distance when it comes time to credit the originator.  Beware those who do not credit and if a presentation can be summed up as a “book report” it’s a sure sign that there’s more filler than thought worth following.

Parroting the thoughts of others can get tiring for the aspiring Thought Leader who craves the full glow of attention.  How then to ensure you get more attention and better yet not have to share it.  My favourite device here is to declare that something is dead.  Choose a product, service or well established principle and say it no longer holds worth. The problem here is a naive assumption about how technology works. Those who work in tech long ago discarded the idea that tech was just a series of increasingly “awesomer” things that successively displace each other.  Painting a tidy timeline of the “next and new” allows our Thought pedlar to align themselves with the new.  By mere association with an emerging technology they can assume the mantle of knowledge whilst simultaneously not actually having to have any knowledge to impart.   Whilst they will hint at holding some insider information this will fall away when pressed to provide anything of greater depth than a cursory Google search.  If a presentation looks like a collection of curiosities gleaned from Google search and half understood Wired articles whilst the presenter gropes for the newest and shiniest chances are they’re a Chancer.

Like some strange Harry Potter inspired fantastic beast some Thought Leaders expand to fill the void they find themselves within. The clamour to fill the space for “content” over quality has offered a ubiquity; in that fringe thoughts are elevated to the mainstream.  Opinions we could have previously avoided are drafted in to become headline acts.  The pressure to fill space not only leads to repetition (or worse creation) it also gives rise to prediction.   Whilst seemingly innocuous at first offering up a future perspective on how things might be is, it’s not without the need for the application of critical thought.  Where the wannabe Thoughtmonger falls down here is in the internet’s unique memory.  Like an aged psychic who offers up fifty futures knowing only the “hits” will be remembered life at the bleeding edge of Thought Leadership isn’t so good at forgetting.  Far to often in one search the futuristic prognostications of a presenter can be undone when one finds the same prediction were made the year before…and the year before that.  Worse still is when these Nostradamic tides seem to ebb and flow to the gravitational pull of the purse strings of whoever is sponsoring the current event, flight or junket.

The growing status anxiety of a career predicated by having to exist constantly at the fringe and yet be palatable to the mainstream can have a jarring effect.  For some, the eventual reckoning comes with a stoic acknowledgment that they should return to the world of work and corporate life.  A slow dissolve and fade to black. For others the resentment of their unrecognised genius leads to self-published anger, a Pandora’s Box of bile buried in a Kindle friendly format.  For the majority there is always another stage, and ever present number of new topics to show-and-tell to an increasingly tech savvy audience.  With fading influence there’s a Dunning–Kruger-ish desperation, beware the Thought Leader willing to present on every subject suggested to them. In a world where we have all become uber-impressive avatars of our more boring ordinary selves, it’s increasingly difficult to pinpoint the handful of experts who have a true wisdom to impart. A wisdom gained from education, wide ranging interests and reading in addition to all the practical lessons learned gained over decades of diligent and successful work life. The internet ended true thought leadership: social media, the blogosphere (I’m painfully aware of the irony), YouTube, user-generated nonsense, self-publishing, and terabytes of low-quality content and sensationalist clickbait.

There are still experts though. There are still those worth listening to.  That signal amidst the cacophony is there, we as an audience have to work all the harder to hear it. In a reality where we’re apparently “tired of Experts” perhaps we’re not tired of true expertise just tired of those who have taken their place?

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