We all want to get traffic to our websites. We want to build audiences who are interested in what we have to say and responsive to our offers.
And so it’s natural to think that we should become “thought leaders.” (Or, to push the expression a little further down Jargon Lane, “thought leaders in our space.”)
Perhaps even more coveted than “going viral,” thought leadership is that elusive, glittering prize — the Golden Snitch of web publishing.
Most of us (I hope) know better than to self-identify as thought leaders. But we think it would be kind of great if other people started calling us that.
I’m not buying it. And here’s why.
First, the petty part: I just hate the term. It’s a clumsy verbal construct that has no need to exist.
Saying “thought leadership” instead of influence has always reminded me of Moe from The Simpsons calling his garage a “car hole.”
But I have real reasons, too.
Let me be clear: I think it’s smart to publish the kind of content that people pay attention to. I think it’s smart to publish good advice. I think it’s smart to be smart.
But thought leadership implies that you have some kind of shiny, new insight that no one has articulated before. To be a thought leader, what you’re saying can’t just be interesting, well-reasoned, and useful — it has to be new.
Novelty is not wisdom
Allow me to propose a radical notion:
We don’t actually need a bunch of new thoughts. We need to pursue and implement the existing thoughts that make sense.
I’m not talking about innovation in technology … that’s going to happen whether we have “thought leaders” or not.
I’m talking about people who claim completely new insights about how the world fundamentally works — whether it’s health, business, the environment, or anything else we care about.
Most thought leaders create novelty in one of two ways.
The first is to repackage old advice in a sparkly new wrapper. Marketers have done this forever, and I don’t actually have a problem with it. New wrappers make things more interesting, and that gets us to pay fresh attention to those darned fundamentals.
But don’t kid yourself and think it makes you a thought leader. It makes you a good teacher. Which is better, because it’s useful.
The other way, of course, is to make up some nonsense.
Tell us all about how the future will belong to left-handed people, that in 2030 the global economy will be based on bacon, or that you’ve identified breakthrough, new research showing that eating nothing but transparent food will make you 17.684 times more intelligent.
If you are in possession of special, unique wisdom that no one else knows about, either you’ve dressed some old wisdom in a new suit or you are pushing a great big pile of BS.
And by the way …
Every expert you know is wrong about something
My other problem with thought leaders is that their audiences start to see them as cult leaders.
I’ll never forget reading some guy’s 50-line-long comment on a Tim Ferriss blog post, asking about what and when he should eat to correspond with variations in the timing of this person’s bowel activity.
This is literally a person asking Tim Ferriss how often he should take a shit.
We expect an authority to be smart about their topic. Economic authorities should be smart about the economy. Nutrition authorities should be smart about nutrition. And so forth.
We expect thought leaders to be quasi-religious figures, blessing us with their deep thoughts and profound insights, and showing us their unique sacred path to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Implicit in this idea of a thought leader is the notion that you need someone to tell you how and what to think. And that, frankly, is a terrible idea.
Thought leadership is a bubble
My other issue with thought leadership is that it’s a catchphrase for a bubble that doesn’t need to be reinforced.
The world is made up of a lot of different kinds of people. They come from different places; they look different; they do different things on their days off; they have different family lives and social circles and work histories.
But thought leaders all look eerily alike.
Do we really need more Business Insider types telling us how the world works? Could we maybe hear from some people who don’t have the exact same CV, the same vocabulary, the same haircut, and the same sports jacket?
Might it not be useful to determine our paths for ourselves, based on our own observations and intelligence, reflecting our individual experiences, striving to see the larger picture, and weighing the informed opinions of actual authorities who back their assertions with credible evidence?
We don’t need thought leadership … we need leadership
Thought leaders strive for new ideas. Leaders strive for good ideas.
You don’t need someone to tell you what to think. I trust you to have that covered.
Your audience doesn’t need it, either. They’re smart. But they have questions, and you can help with that.
I believe it’s useful to step up and share your experience. I find it’s massively useful when someone who has done something difficult talks about what they’ve learned along the way.
I believe in expertise. Some people are better at a given skill than others. Usually because they have a lot of practice doing it.
I believe that most of us have days when our confidence fails, and we can use a pep talk.
And I believe that it’s powerful to let people know what you believe in. Not because you’re telling them to believe the same way, but because you’re inviting those who do to walk with you.
So, what if you actually come up with a new idea?
New ideas do actually come up sometimes. Maybe you’ll come up with one of them.
If you have a new perspective or insight, and it’s supported by credible evidence, that can be a powerful thing.
Write about it. Question it. Investigate it. Teach it. Promote it.
Just like you do with all the good advice you offer. Whether your idea is good or bad doesn’t depend on an overused label.
The world doesn’t need you to chase after some empty notion of thought leadership.
Leading your audience with your expertise, your confidence, your integrity, and your passion for their well-being is enough.
Reader Comments (28)
Sandeep Rathore says
Hey Sonia Simone, this is indeed a good read. Renowned Editor William Zinsser taught that we should use words that spark imagination in us. I completely agree with him. ‘Thought leadership’ doesn’t help me imagine anything, but ‘Influence’ really does. Your article reminded me of him. Thanks!
Sonia Simone says
Thanks Sandeep. 🙂
Rohan Bhardwaj says
You don’t need to tell everyone why you are right all the time. Instead you need to try out ideas, share your experiences and somehow crave the path for your tribe to follow, if they choose.
Leadership is the goal – where you can be wrong, learn along the way or be boring sometimes.
Dodli Nandi says
Fantastic read! I have been seeing so many ‘thought’ leaders around me with either little or no thought. Thank you so much for this article.
It’s be frustrating if not a tragedy to try and be the trend setter in any niche/area because other ‘market’ forces will always pull the crowd in a different direction. I think it is wiser to anticipate and lead rather than ‘think’ you are still leading.
Sonia Simone says
Trying to set trends is a risky endeavor.
Sometimes when you put out good and compelling work, and get it into enough people’s hands, you’ll find that you set a trend. Which is great … I just haven’t seen a lot of folks create value trying to put the cart before the horse.
Doug Rotherham says
Sorry to get all Comic Book Guy on you. But it was actually Moe, not Homer, who called the garage a car “hold”. Although there is some debate as to whether he said “hole” or “hold”.
Sonia Simone says
Ha! The dangers of going from memory. 🙂 Thanks Doug!
The clip, for those who didn’t see the scene or don’t remember it (like me):
Mo Scott says
“Novelty is not wisdom.”
Excellent. Thank you.
John Walston says
Henry Bendik says
Brilliant! I love how you took this crazy, overused phrase and gave it it’s proper perspective.
I couldn’t agree more.
IMHO, Thought Leaders = Attention Seekers.
Sonia Simone says
To be fair, anyone marketing a business has to be an attention seeker. 🙂
I think there’s a difference between seeking attention for your businesss and seeking attention to inflate your ego.
Tom 'Bald Dog' Varjan says
This is brilliant, Sonia, and…
“If you are in possession of special, unique wisdom that no one else knows about, either you’ve dressed some old wisdom in a new suit or you are pushing a great big pile of BS.”
…tells it all.
Thought leadership, content marketing or buyer persona are all such things.
I would also add that when there is an institute to prop up and hawk such concepts, we know the concept is old wine in new bottle.
David Ogilvy was doing content marketing and the buyer persona stuff, when he sat down, listed the companies that he wanted as clients and started writing articles around their subject matters.
In Scientific Advertising, Claude Hopkins was writing about offering information that helps people make buying decisions. That was content marketing.
John Dere’s “newsletter”, the The Furrow was thought leadership, starting in 1885.
The Ladies’ Home Journal was thought leadership, starting. in 1883.
The 400-page Michelin Guide, published in 1900, was thought leadership.
And at that time, concepts spread based on their merits not because institutes were pushing them.
My observation is that most thought leaders are academics who have never worked in the free market economy and have never run businesses.
Sonia Simone says
And we have poured many, many bottles of old wine into new bottles. 🙂 The difference is, we like to tell you that’s exactly what we’re doing.
The Michelin Guide may be my all-time favorite content marketing example. Need people to wear out more tires? Publish a guide so they’re inspired to take more motoring trips, and they enjoy them more. Marvelous.
Laura Christianson says
Referring to oneself as a “thought leader” has always struck me as the ultimate in pretentiousness (is “pretentiousness” a word?).
Kind of like using “leverage” as a verb (my pet peeve). Everyone knows that “leverage” means to use someone or something to get what you want. Why not be honest about it?
Okay… back to leveraging my influence in the marketing space to enhance my position as a thought leader!
Sonia Simone says
Make sure you’re dynamically disrupting some paradigms while you’re at it!
Jitendra Vaswani says
Thanks for the amazing post. I am in love with the line-Thought leaders strive for new ideas. Leaders strive for good ideas.
Being a thought leader will make you successful leader in a long term but running after a good idea will work for a while but not in a long run.
Thanks again for the great post.
Christian Krauß says
finally someone speaks up. 🙂
For me ‘thought leadership’ is as overused and empty as every other marketing drivel.
I think a good rule here is – as in writing, or even love for that matter – ‘show, don’t tell’.
That means, there’s nothing WRONG with being a thought leader.
If you are a thought leader: fine. (But chances are, you’re not, hehe) If you’re not, that’s okay, too. Either way, you don’t have to say it. 🙂
Be inspirational, be smart, be good. That’s a pretty good start …
Thanks for a great read and best wishes from Germany
Sonia Simone says
Michael Corley says
Thank you, Sonia.
I hated the term also and would often tune out when I happened upon it in podcasts and blog posts because the phrase rang so hollow.
But something about how you squared the term “leadership” in contrast to its bastard-child-of-a-phrase that gave me the push I needed on a project I’ve been reluctant to commit to.
Experience has its highest value when it’s in service to others in helping them take the next step forward.
And this post made that clear to me better than anything I’ve read or heard in a long time.
Sonia Simone says
Cool stuff, Michael — glad you’re moving forward with that project. 🙂
I’ve found that there’s a lot of not-knowing involved in real leadership, and the “thought leader” construct sometimes has a hard time being willing to work with that.
O.U. Rasscalle says
As usual, very well-executed, Sonia.
A couple of comments from the perspective of one who has worked for a couple of thought leaders:
(1) They are rock stars in their own mind; shooting stars in the eyes of their audience. That’s not where you want to be. Keep it humble, know your shit and share the wealth.
(2) Even if you do stumble upon a new idea or build a better mousetrap, the model isn’t sustainable. What are you going to come up with NEXT???
(3) When you hit rock star status, you need the support of a machine. And the machines these guys build are usually worse than they are–hungry, demanding employee eaters.
Sonia Simone says
Interesting insights. I think most people have very little understanding of the “rock star” life — it has its own problems and from my observation, it doesn’t actually look particularly satisfying. Good points about both the sustainability of new-and-shiny and the oppressive tendencies of that machine.
Matt Thorpe says
Great article Sonia.
Too many people out there full of their own importance or people trying to be someone they are not. You can almost smell their crap.
I operate a bs-free zone. I don’t claim to be innovative or ground-breaking. I just claim to translate stuff into simple advice and strategies that my clients can understand and implement. I’m a simple soul and i talk like a normal person, not some fricking robot or 22 year old life coach who’s decided they know how the world of works.
Power to the normal people.
Every time I read one of your articles, I find it simple and to the point. I suppose being a thought leader may be cool, but like you say, we should just implement the thoughts we already have. I find it like reading to learn but never applying the knowledge. There comes a time when we have to get the hammer out and drive a few nails.
Kitty Kilian says
Awww, Sonia, can’t we do away with the term leadership as well? I don’t need my thoughts led.
PS Here’s a new old thought to enhance the user friendliness of a comments section: put the comment box up top and the name – email- website boxes at the bottom. We first want to jot down our enthusiastic comment before getting down to the nitty gritty of filling out our particulars.
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