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7 Things Thought Leaders Don’t Think

Barry Feldman: March 18, 2013 | Content marketing | Comments
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Busted lightbulb thought leaders

What’s with this thought leadership pandemic? The term’s getting tossed around today like a dollar store foam football. In my mind, this makes for a great analogy of its value.

I’m a thought reader. I’m a thought needer. Given my love for blogging (and obvious affection for opinionating), I think it’d be fair to say I’m even a thought feeder.

But I’m not a thought leader. Neither are you. Okay cool, we now know at least two of us here in cyberspace are not thought leaders.

Is there a formula for thought leadership?

No. Hell no.

Despite what you may have been told by the wanna-be thought leaders who so generously offer convenient instruction manuals for becoming a thought leader, no formula produces one.

Though there are a variety of ingredients thought leaders share, there’s no recipe. There’s no thought leadership department at Walmart and no webinar, conference, eBook, podcast, infographic, pin board, or blog with the magic power to convert you into a thought leader.

I hope I haven’t ruined your day. I don’t mean to be a downer dude. I think the world of thought leaders. I think you should definitely aspire to become an authority in your field. I also think you most definitely should share your ideas by publishing useful content online. It’s a powerful strategy for building your brand.

However, you need to be credible every step of the way. Wander into the land of self-proclaimed thought leadership and your credibility dies a sudden (and deserved) death. Thought leaders don’t call themselves thought leaders. They don’t think that way.

What else don’t thought leaders think?

Thank you for asking. I’ve created a list.

1.    Twitter is the road to Thought Leadership City.
Twitter is awesome. It’s my favorite platform for exchanging ideas, making new connections, and building relationships. I credit social media at large for profoundly changing our lives in so many ways. It has given experts of every type a means to amplify their messages and accelerate their teaching, so its implications for marketing are enormous.Perhaps it’s fair to say social media does pave the way for many new opportunities, but it doesn’t take you to a place called “Thought Leadership.” It gives you a great microphone, so it definitely can allow you to be heard by a bigger audience and potentially command even greater influence. But it doesn’t give you the revolutionary ideas that will anoint you a thought leader.

2.    Authoring a book makes thought leadership automatic.
It’s never been easy to write a book and it never will be. But it’s true; it has become immensely easier to publish a book—or anything. Hurdles that might have formerly blocked the path to publishing have been removed. So we have more books now. I’m not sure we have more great books though.Essentially, we’ve segued over to content marketing with this one. The content doesn’t have to be a book. However, just as social media itself doesn’t make you brilliant, a publication with your name on it doesn’t either.

3.    Calling myself a thought leader makes me a thought leader.
This is so untrue, I was compelled to write an article about it. Read “You Are So Not the Thought Leader You Think” published at ‘The Point.” I’d like to call myself a professional tennis player, but I’m a mediocre club-level player. Want lessons?

4.    All those convenient shortcuts to thought leadership are so useful.
I can’t imagine graduating from a course with a degree in thought leadership. I hope you can’t either. It strikes me as laughable that a seminar, eBook, video, or any teaching tool can transform you or anyone into a thought leader. An article titled, “Write a Thought-Leadership Corporate Blog in Just 5 Minutes a Week” inspired me to add this “shortcut” idea to my list (as well as add a few thoughts to the article’s commentary stream).

5.    Evangelism makes me a thought leader.
Don’t let this observation of mine discourage you. If you have strong convictions about a topic and believe your word will help others, by all means, be an evangelist. I’m doing my part by speaking on and writing about content marketing here, there and everywhere. It doesn’t make me a thought leader though. It makes me an evangelist.

6.    Joining a thought leadership group makes me a thought leader.
Nice try. I’m sure you’ll find thought leader groups on LinkedIn and no doubt there are MeetUps and clubs featuring “Thought Leader” in their names. Chances are pretty good, getting involved in these will have you rubbing elbows with some strong thinkers and inspire some great ideas.I’ve been attending a MeetUp about business speaking (and joined some LinkedIn groups focusing on the topic). I find myself surrounded by experienced speakers, gathering helpful ideas for speaking, and I now take advantage of opportunities to speak. So I’m a speaker now. However, joining these groups didn’t make me a speaker. I made myself one.

7.    Thinking makes me a thought leader.
This one is so obvious we probably shouldn’t give it another thought. Instead, I’ll expand the statement by adding:You also shouldn’t think being a leader makes you a thought leader.Everyone thinks and there’s no shortage of leaders.I do a fair share of leading. I’m the leader on many marketing projects. I’ve been the leader, that is, manager, of an old guys’ softball team for decades. I get to decide who’s on the team, what positions they play, and what order the players bat in. I don’t have thoughts that will change the direction of the sacred sport.

Thank goodness for thought leaders.

See, I value the thought leaders of the world as much as you or anybody. No, you won’t win my respect by telling me you are one. No, you can’t count on tools and techniques to transform you into one. Thinking and talking about it means diddly. And studying thought leadership or hobnobbing with thought leaders may be meaningful, but it’s not magical.

Thought leadership just isn’t a moniker you toss on your resume.

Thought leaders are the men and women with ideas with the power to change the world. Their vision causes us to recalibrate ours. Their conviction stomps on the status quo and grinds it into the ground. Their passion for progress renders fear completely useless. They don’t subscribe to formulas nor do they attempt to create them.

Steve Jobs was a thought leader. You might say he was an arrogant one. He offended people left and right and left a trail of suck-ups and pretenders in his wake. You couldn’t even offend him back. Steve was ruthless. He was relentless. And he revolutionized this world in meaningful ways.

However opinionated this article might be, my observations in the paragraph above are not opinions. They are incontrovertible facts. What you are doing right now is the result of the work of a thought leader in a black mock-tee who made a big badass dent in the world by giving us tools to help us be creative.

He’d infuriate his teammates. If you didn’t see things his way, he’d flip you two middle fingers. If you put Steve Jobs in thought leadership school, he’d fail every course. Thought leaders create their own course.

That’s what I think about thought leadership. What do you think?

Barry Feldman
Barry Feldman, founder of Feldman Creative, is a prolific writer with 25 years of experience bringing his clients' online presence to the next level through copywriting and content marketing creation and consulting. He writes and educates clients on online marketing on The Point and on many other sites across the web. Connect with Barry on Google+.
Barry Feldman


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  • Alex Clifford

    “If you put Steve Jobs in thought leadership school, he’d fail every course. Thought leaders create their own course.”

    What a couple of lines! That sums it up entirely, and I’d completely agree.

    They wouldn’t even want to be called thought leaders, because that put them in a box with every other “thought leader”. And the assumptions of what that entails. Would you agree?

    • Barry Feldman

      I definitely would agree. “A thought leader is……..” – That sort of thing feels so “over thought.” Perhaps we’ll wear it out and move on to some other pie in the sky term.

  • Stephan Lins


    Btw: Have you seen the number of “social media gurus” out there? If you need to call yourself a “guru”, chances are you aren’t one.

    • Barry Feldman

      Truer words were never spoken Stephan. Your friend, the blogging guru.

  • Emily Davis Consult.

    Thank you so much for this! In the last week, I’ve had three different call me a thought leader and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why or what the hell a thought leader is. I’ve been struggling with the phrase as well as how it is overused. I may be a subject matter expert, but thought leader… not so much. I’ll be sharing this with my networks. Thank you again!

    • Barry Feldman

      Love it. You go Emily.

  • Demetris Booth

    I think Thought Leadership sometimes gets confused with being opinionated, especially when it is applied to someone who excels in their career field, and especially by the person themselves, as Stephan mentioned. It is more or less another buzz-phrase applied to people who frequently share their wealth of knowledge. Nothing wrong with that, but I’d prefer to call them Thought Facilitators because they doing just that…….facilitating further discussions around these subjects. This has nothing to do with “Leadership” as it requires a set of skills almost never deployed by the so-called Thought Leaders.

    Great Topic!

  • dougkessler

    Great post. Part of the problem might be the word ‘follower’ on Twitter. People who fancy themselves leaders tend to take it a bit too literally and see themselves marching towards a bright, new world with their throngs behind them. They would do well to take a look over their shoulders every now and then: there’s nobody there…

    • Barry Feldman

      Good observation. Interesting, the metaphors social media networks put in place do indeed “over blow” the relationship. I think “like” might be the biggest culprit, but “follower” definitely belongs on the list. Thanks for this, azza — and the tweets.

  • Dr_Liz

    Fantastic piece, Barry! You’ve nailed it, especially around two areas that I’m especially connected with: writing a book (I’ve written 13, only one of which was self-published) and taking a “course” in thought leadership.

    May I add a perspective on each?

    One of my professional hats is “consulting co-author” and I work with established subject matter experts who aspire to thought leadership. What I tell them is this: don’t expect to see a book anytime soon! Unique thoughts are an emergent property, in my experience, of the book development process–but there is no cookie-cutter approach and I could never condone (as so many folks in the book coaching space do) saying: “You can have a book published in three months.” Quick and dirty usually means you’re going to produce an expert’s book, because the likelihood is all you’re going to have time for is getting your existing thoughts down on paper. That’s a far cry from demonstrating thought leadership and I agree with you that writing a book isn’t something that confers anything on you (including credibility, which is another stupid claim for authorship).

    I agree that (and, oh boy, you just know this is going to happen one day soon, don’t you?) coming up with some kind of “How to become a thought leader” course is laughable. Nevertheless, Craig Badings and I captured what we feel is a comprehensive process for thinking through all the issues that lead up to embarking on a thought leadership initiative in #Thought Leadership Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign. As we explore this topic with exemplars around the globe, it’s clear how easy it is to overlook certain fundamental issues when setting your organization’s sights at a thought leadership position. Speaking of Steve Jobs, tweet # 17 is: “Do you admire the late, great Steve Jobs but no way in hell would hire anyone like him? Do innovators thrive or die in your culture?”

    Thought leadership emerges in an environment–a culture–that values curiosity, accepts that innovation goes hand in glove with “failure,” and maybe is even bold enough to create its own “skunkworks” so that those attempting to think beyond sales and other hard numbers aren’t tainted by the brand-centric focus that is completely contrary to a thought leader’s client-centric position.

    What is an interesting question to explore, of course, is why are we seeing this over-use of words like “expert,” “thought leader,” “guru” (ugh, hate that one too!) and on and on. I blame the self-esteem movement…and I’m only half-joking. We’ve been raised in a culture where making any effort, however small, is applauded beyond its worth; taught in schools where it’s considered bad to inject some competition (i.e., some folks might win prizes for superior work, while others got nothing); where the concept of equality has been distorted to mean that we’re all have to be good at whatever Buzzword Bingo term is currently in vogue, as opposed to bringing equally valuable but different gifts to the table.

    As I wrote in a recent (not yet published) guest blog post for the UK: “There
    are plenty of practitioners out there, it’s the true visionaries that are in
    short supply. What are you prepared to do to swell those ranks? And if that seems too hard, time-consuming and risky in terms of not directly relating to bottom line benefits, do us all a favor and just refer to yourself as a content marketer, not a thought leader.”

  • kimber

    Okay, i’m laughing sooooo hard. Thank you thank you for your candid writing. So refreshing. Here’s what i’ll do in your honor. I’ll be a NO THOUGHT leader. in fact, i’ll teach a class in which i promise to give zero teaching anyone anything. instead perhaps i’ll help everyone get meticulous in listening and distinguishing and being. 🙂

    and one last note as i ask this every where i go. who is reading all these books that are getting written? i read quality. Perhaps, we can bundle up thought leader term and mastermind terms together. why does anyone want more mind in the matter?

  • Kasie Hilburn

    TRUE STORY. When I hear people calling THEMSELVES a #thoughtleader I wanna hurl. I just did an advanced search on LinkedIn for “thought leader” and happily only 4 of my connections use the term on their profile. One I would say is legitimate. But they are all egocentric personalities. Thanks for the laugh and the perspective.

    • Barry Feldman

      You got a laugh out of me too. Thanks.

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  • Sonny Moon

    Whoever came up with the term “thought leader” should be shot (figuratively speaking, of course).