Thought Leaders™ versus thought leaders

My friend Tom wrote a Twitter thread last week about how thought leaders are often derided in the tech industry.

I agree with Tom’s point that people — both in an out of the tech sector — value doing over thinking. It’s why we differentiate “talking the talk” and “walking the walk”. But I think it’s important to distinguish between people who are advancing the state of the field by visionary work and people who are trying to draw attention to their expertise. “Thought leaders” versus “Thought Leaders™”.

I’m of the mind that there’s a list of attributes where if you have to tell people you are that, then you aren’t. Someone who is always talking about how honest they are? Probably not trustworthy. Similarly, someone who describes themselves as a thought leader is probably not as influential as they’d like to think. (Full disclosure: I sometimes refer to myself as a thought leader, but I do it ironically.)

James Cuff gave me a certificate for being a “total thought leader” when he was still an Assistant Dean at Harvard.

I would argue that true thought leadership is an act of doing in itself. It’s taking experience gained from being a practitioner in the field and using that to inform a vision of the future. Thought leaders lead not by saying what the future is, but by showing what the future is. They don’t have to tell people that they’re thought leaders because the evidence is plain to see.

Most people can probably name at least a handful of people in their field that they think are always on the cutting edge. And they probably think highly of those people. It’s not being a thought leader they object to, just the self-applied label.

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