Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about credibility, expert status, and thought leadership. What makes for a good thought leader? What is a thought leader? And how do you know if those of us who are deemed “thought leaders” actually know what we’re talking about?
What’s a Thought Leader?
A thought leader is a recognized expert, generally in business. We’re talking about people who are well-known and established in their industry. People who are highly successful, usually, and who often profit from their status as a thought leader.
The opinions of thought leaders are regularly sought out, and our writing is frequently quoted. And therein lies both the greatness and the problem with thought leadership.
The Problem with “Thought Leaders” Today.
Let’s be honest: it’s cool to be a thought leader. Seeing people live-tweeting your presentations and quoting you can be a nice ego boost. So on the one side of thought leadership, when you actually are a thought leader, it’s pretty cool.
Often, however, the quoting and repeating of what we say is done without much thought on the part of those who are quoting us. Rather than thinking through what’s been said or testing to see if it’s true, it’s easier and faster to believe and follow, without bothering to ask if what’s being said is actually credible. And this blind obedience has the potential to make us extremely lazy.
It seems to me that there used to be a little more oversight. Back when reporters and journalists were less pressed and overworked and were able to focus on the discovery of truth, it seems like maybe they might’ve called us out if we just blatantly made stuff up. Today, journalists have very little time and are pressed to write more and more articles than ever, especially since they’re competing online as well as in print. There’s not much time to research the background of someone responding to a “HARO” posting asking for comment, or to track down the origin of a statistic that’s been mentioned in a blog post. That means that pretty much anyone can make up any statistic at any time, put it in a blog post, tweet it enough times, and eventually, it will catch on as “truth.” Plus, a quick Google search reveals copious articles that teach you how to be a thought leader in just “six steps” or giving you a few steps to “get it right.” But a true thought leader takes time and experience to develop. The lack of oversight today has the potential to make thought leaders (or “wannabe” thought leaders) dishonest and to ruin what a thought leader is intended to be.
What Makes for a Good Thought Leader?
So what does it take to be a good and responsible thought leader, with integrity and honesty?
A responsible thought leader questions everything. Ask yourself, “Is this true?” and “Is this really true?” When I wrote Business in Blue Jeans, I asked myself those questions with almost every sentence. I would ponder everything I wanted to write, asking myself if I really believed and knew things to be true. Ultimately, I realized that I had to put just the things that I had tested with my clients over the years in the book, for the things that my clients did that worked to grow their businesses were the things that I knew to be true.
We live in an age of impatience and instant gratification. That’s why there are so many articles showing people how to become thought leaders. The real question is, “Do you want to be a true thought leader or do you want to gain thought leadership status so you can be known/make more money/be more successful/meet some unmet internal need?” If you want to be a true thought leader, remember that excellence comes with wisdom and experience. True thought leadership takes time to develop. If you’re just in it for the status, semi-fame, or the cash, there are reality shows for that.
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Ask. Then ask again.
Ask the questions. Do the research. Look around you and ask your clients and followers what they think and what their experience has been. Ask other thought leaders. Get into the dialogues and discussions and keep asking. It’s not about asking what others think so that you can follow the crowd…obviously that’s not leadership, and a good leader must be able to trust himself or herself. But you have to ask the questions before you can ever arrive at the answers.
Study the classics and study the thought leaders. Study as much as you can, but with a critical mind. Don’t just blindly read, but read, then ponder and ask if what you’ve read is true. Keep an open mind, but remain skeptical (while “skeptical” means “doubtful” to many, to me it means maintaining a questioning and curious attitude towards knowledge, facts, or claims that others may take as truth).
Think critically. A lot.
I was raised to question everything and to ask myself if something someone says is completely true, partially true, or completely false. That’s what you should be doing, as a thought leader. Think critically about everything that you read, hear, and see. Everything that other thought leaders say isn’t always true, and what you read in the classics isn’t always 100% true, either. So what is true? What do you believe and know to be true? This is where thought leadership starts.
The Emperor Has No Clothes.
There are people out there right now who are calling themselves thought leaders who, frankly, aren’t contributing anything new. They’re not saying anything that you haven’t heard before, and they’re not even questioning regular wisdom and dogma. And no one is saying anything about it. Well, I’m saying it. The emperor has no clothes. There are too many thoughtless thought leaders out here. They’re giving bad advice that doesn’t work, repeating junk that simply isn’t true, and quite frankly, making stuff up.
To business owners:
As a business owner, I implore you to ask the hard questions. Don’t take everything you read in a book to be 100% accurate and true. Remember that the book is usually just the author’s opinion and it might be wrong. This, of course, makes things pretty tough, because if you can’t rely upon thought leaders to give you the straight story, who can you rely upon? The answer is that you must learn to rely on yourself and your own judgment. If someone says something that sounds too good to be true, remain skeptical. Don’t be so desperate for answers that you believe someone, just because they have a good reputation. Don’t think, “Just because so-and-so said it, it must be true.”
Finally, find good, credible thought leaders who do their due diligence in making sure that they’re taking their leadership responsibly.
To thought leaders:
People look to us for help, wisdom, advice. They look to us for the answers. They want to believe that we know what we’re talking about. So take your thought leadership as the responsibility that it is. Don’t write books filled with fluff and nonsense. Write thoughtful pieces that give honest and true advice that people can truly follow. Question everything you’ve been repeating, including yourself. Don’t give yourself the easy and lazy way out. Be willing to let go of your ego and be vulnerable. Hold yourself accountable to the many people who believe that you can help them and work hard to live up to the deep trust they place in us. Trust is a gift, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.