The anatomy of a thought leader

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What exactly is a thought leader?

The term was used as early as 1887 and has since become very popular. But what does it mean?

Lauren Hockenson wrote that the editor of Booz & Company’s business magazine, Joel Kurtman, said a thought leader was someone worth talking to.

An alternative way to express that might be to say that person is someone worth listening to.

You might think that a natural source of thought leaders would be academia – that is where new ideas and thoughts are professionally generated after all.

The nature of modern academia, however, is a quest to find out more and more about less and less. It is hard to make it relevant to non-academics.

Some academics do make an effort, as do other professionals, to move beyond the confines and boundaries of their own disciplines to reach out to others and challenge existing norms.

You might call them a new intellectual class. The political scientist Daniel Drezner writes about the distinction between public intellectuals and thought leaders, saying the first are sceptical and analytic while the latter are evangelical and promote a particular point of view.

This is perhaps not a useful categorisation and the key measure should instead be the degree of critical thinking.

A point of view that draws on one’s narrow experience and successes and claims they are universally applicable is less critical than one that takes a number of points of view and generates a considered (critical) approach.

Thoughts and ideas are not much use if they are locked away. People that share and communicate what they do are more likely to find their ideas received by a larger audience. If they are lucky, they may go viral.

Someone that has something to say on a topic will probably have some expertise in that topic. At the same time, there is always more to learn.

There are a few observers that conflate cause and effect. For example, this definition suggests that thought leadership is very much about making money.

I doubt, however, that the profit motive alone is enough to sustain the work needed. Warren Buffett probably does not write his shareholder letters because they make him money but because he enjoys writing about investment principles.

So, how can you identify a thought leader? Perhaps the following checklist might help:

  • They are interesting – saying things worth listening to.
  • They challenge existing norms – helping you think more clearly.
  • They share their ideas – communicating freely and openly.
  • They care about their subject – they have taken the time to learn and continue to develop their knowledge.

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