Thought Leaders Usually Aren’t

by  Mike Myatt  |  Leadership Development

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?

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Shawn Murphy  |  17 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Many of us want the label of thought leader; however, the moniker isn’t one that truly can be bestowed upon anyone. It takes keen insight to see trends and play them out ahead of where things are presently. This ability has been one that eludes many C-Suite executives (and managers/individual contributors) for many many many years. It’s tough to take the elements in play, evaluate their influences, and cast a new vision that inspires the troops and transforms companies and the market. I basically regurgitated what you said, Mike…another way of saying, “I agree.”

Mike Myatt  |  18 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Hi Shawn:

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts (no pun intended). I think you raise an interesting question with regard to C-Suite execs – should these positions require thought leadership as a prerequisite? While I don’t know that a C-level exec must be a thought leader, it certainly doesn’t hurt. Even worse however is the exec that believes thought leadership exists where it does not.

Art Petty  |  17 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Mike, I wrote a prize-winning comment, hit submit, forget to enter my CAPTCHA code, and lost it! You’ll have to settle for this poor imitation of that now forever lost comment. : )

Great and thought-provoking (if not thought-leading) post. I still cringe just a bit when I hear the thought-leader term. This comes from too many decades/years in software and tech where what passed for thought-leadership was thinly veiled marketing-speak of the worst kind.

Leadership as a category offers some interesting challenges in the thought-leader arena. You are right, the core concepts are…well, they are core and timeless. Fortunately, there are nearly endless applications of those core concepts in different settings and circumstances, which makes for interesting writing, reading and learning opportunities. I genuinely cannot run out of ideas to write about based on the application of those core concepts.

I don’t know the work/authors you cited, so no defense. The only observation is that we have a nearly endless stream of new, young professionals that don’t have the wisdom of the Lead Change members, and I’m all for anyone with good, character-based comments to jump in and help us change the world.

Last and not least, the people reading and writing here are so darned smart…we need to have more books and more visibility to their great ideas, applications and helpful approaches.

Thanks as always for educating, inspiring and instigating a few thoughts. Best, -Art

Mike Myatt  |  18 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Hi Art:

I’m not sure what your original comment consisted of, but the one you submitted counts as an award-winner in my book :). Thanks for sharing Art.

Deborah Costello  |  17 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Perhaps the real problem with such “thought-leaders” is that they spend all of their time thinking and little of it listening. There’s an interesting pschological phenomenon called next-in-line effect (I didn’t name it… it just is..) When we go around a circle in order sharing ideas, people stop listening when it gets close to their turn because they are thinking about what they are going to say. A lot of times they end up repeating others ideas, as they didn’t hear them the first time. They don’t remember that an idea was already said. Would love to know what you think about this idea.

Mary C Schaefer  |  18 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Deborah, thanks so much for sharing a name to that “next-in-line” phenomenon. I am going to quote that liberally in upcoming training classes I’ll be conducting. You described it beautifully, particularly the potential negative impact. Mary

Mike Myatt  |  18 Mar 2011  | 

Deborah and Mary:

Thanks for the insights. I agree with Deborah about a lack of listening skills. I also liked the “next-in-line” reference – sad, but often true.

Mandy Vavrinak  |  17 Mar 2011  |  Reply

The flip side of “content is king” is that many bow down and do whatever is necessary to please that ruler. Even if that means publishing schlock just so there’s something “new” out there stamped with author’s name. I write mostly about PR and marketing…. not new professions by any stretch. And if I don’t have something (I hope is) useful to say, I don’t hit publish. That is not to say I don’t sometimes go back and cover some basic ideas for new readers or those new to the field…. but I don’t do it in the HBR and I don’t do it under a mantle of “thought-leadership.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this… touched a nerve ;)

Mike Cassidy  |  17 Mar 2011  |  Reply

I’d prefer being known as an action-leader than a thought-leader. Significant difference between doing and thinking.

Well stated Mike.

Mary C Schaefer  |  18 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Nice turn of phrase, Mike. “Action-leader” – I like it. Mary

Mary C Schaefer  |  18 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Mike, you had me at “Thought Leaders Usually Aren’t.” Good job putting into words what many of us think every time we hear the phrase. Mary

Rick  |  05 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Here’s another one to add to your list – “Organization Lattice” by Cathy Benko and Molly Anderson. When they used the term the “lattice way” it sent me over the edge. The only time I’ll use the word lattice is when I put it under my deck.

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