Thought Leaders Usually Aren’t

Every now and then I read an article by so-called “thought leaders” that just leaves me wondering “do people really believe this stuff when they write it, or are they just so busy cranking out new content for the marketing engine that they feel as if they can pull one over on us?” The attempts by prominent brands and large consultancies to spin something old as something new never cease to amaze me. If I wasn’t so busy laughing, I’d probably be crying…

Sadly, I just finished reading such an article co-authored by a few Heidrick and Struggles executives. The piece was recently published in Harvard Business Review entitled ‘The New Path to the C-Suite.” While the article shares the authors’ opinions surrounding the evolution of key C-Suite positions, the main premise of the article is that by the time an executive reaches the C-Suite, leadership ability is of greater value than functional competency. Hmmm …let me see if I’ve got this right – business has evolved to the point where leaders need to possess leadership ability? Really HBR and Heidrick? Is that the best you can do? Are you really attempting to convince us that this epiphany is some form of ground breaking leadership theory?

Smart organizations have always known that senior executives must have strong leadership abilities to succeed.  I don’t really care what decade, or for that matter, even what century you cite as a reference, great companies are built on a foundation of great leadership.  The authors do a fine job of stating that C-level executives need to be strategic thinkers, able to cast a vision, to build teams, create culture, etc., the problem I have is THIS IS NOT NEW INFORMATION.  The information is so basic, it’s not even particularly representative of the enlightened thinking one would hope for from a firm like Heidrick or a publishing platform like HBR.

I have always poked fun at the concept of “thought leadership” where little real or original thought actually takes place.  As much as some people wish it wasn’t so, a thought leader is not someone who simply restates someone else’s views and positions. Even going beyond uniqueness of thought, a true thought leader’s positions also challenge established norms and conventions. Moreover, the true litmus test for a thought leader is when their unique ideas are implemented in the marketplace, they tend to create disruptive innovation, and often change the way we view the world. I would submit that gaining access to the C-Suite by exhibiting outstanding leadership ability does not meet this litmus test.

Sure, I’ve had days when some of my articles or blog posts miss the mark, but at least I make an intellectually honest attempt to ensure anything I author is original, adds value, and is actionable. News Flash - the world is not in need of more rhetoric just for the sake of adding to the noise.

Regrettably the label of thought leader has evolved to become a self-bestowed title for anyone who has something to say or promote, often without regard for qualitative issues. Some would say that the term thought leader, once synonymous with futurist and innovator, is more closely aligned with snake-oil salesman today. Don’t get me wrong, true thought leaders still exist; they are just much harder to spot these days.

My advice to you is to judge people on their actions and results, not their rhetoric. Don’t accept conventional wisdom as gospel just because it’s published by a big brand.  Here’s the deal - when you run across true thought leadership, you’ll clearly recognize it as such. Thoughts?