The trouble with thought leadership

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “thought leader” first appeared in writing in 1887. But it didn’t take hold until more than one hundred years later when Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of Strategy & Business magazine, started a column profiling thought leaders of the day.

“A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers, and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate,” said Kurtzman. “They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view, and new insights.”

As experts in our fields, we all aspire to be thought leaders. But that honorific may not work out the way we expect it to. Consider the evidence:

1. Thought leaders must be anointed by others.

The term “thought leader” first appeared in an 1887 book written by Lyman Abbott about his predecessor, Henry Ward Beecher. A prolific writer and public speaker, Beecher was a Congregationalist minister, abolitionist, and champion of women’s suffrage, temperance, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. After defending his friend’s memory against ongoing rumors that he committed adultery, Abbott assured the reader that “Mr. Beecher retains his position as the most eminent preacher and one of the great thought leaders in America.”

Henry Ward Beecher was very well known, as was his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But he wasn’t referred to as a thought leader until after his death. The lack of that honorific during his lifetime did nothing to change the scope of his impact.

2. Thought leaders don’t always get the brightest spotlight.

You are probably familiar with Steve Jobs, the visionary genius and co-founder of Apple. But does the name Edwin Land ring a bell? Land was the founder of Polaroid, which was once the hottest technology company in the world in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. In a 1985 interview in Playboy, Jobs referred to Land as a “brilliant troublemaker.” He modeled Apple after Polaroid and himself after Land.

Edwin Land was a true thought leader. But it was his protege, Steve Jobs, who received the accolades and recognition that lasted well beyond his lifetime. Land’s contributions are not quite as obvious to the general public as Jobs’s contributions, but that doesn’t diminish their impact.

3. Thought leaders are often ridiculed and ostracized.

On the cover of the August 1997 issue of Nature, the term “wood-wide web” was used to refer to Dr. Suzanne Simard’s article about the power of mycorrhizal networks. Her findings called into question the established wisdom espoused by veteran foresters — beliefs based on the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest. Her work was met with enthusiasm, followed by harsh (and baseless) criticism. It nearly ended her career.

Dr. Simard’s research was groundbreaking, but she paid a steep price for daring to disrupt her industry. She had to fight for her findings and funding to continue her research for ten years. Today, she is a respected forest ecologist, author, speaker, and professor.

​To be regarded as a thought leader, you must build your reputation and have the title bestowed upon you. But you have no control over others’ opinions of your work and ideas, and those who confer this coveted title may not be the people impacted by your work.

The truth is that you don’t have to be a thought leader to make a difference. You don’t have to be a thought leader to be an expert. And you don’t have to be a thought leader to be a thoughtful leader.

Instead of focusing on other people’s opinions of your work, focus on the things you can control. Show up, provide value, and be your full brilliant self. If you end up being regarded as a thought leader, that’s great. That is certainly a cause for celebration. But then get back to work. Because recognition isn’t what matters.