The Thought Leadership Trap….

Please ignore that headline — It’s misleading at best, and just a ploy to get you to click on the link at worst…but now that you’re here, an explanation….

The fantastic Elizabeth Sosnow posed a question the other day that I knew would spend time bouncing around in the back of my head until I sat down and tried to answer it (or the answer came forwards all on its own).  It could also be that she was just sitting in traffic, bored and wanted some dialogue and I got stuck in the trap (headline tie-in — trap…get it?  Watch for the rest of the tie-in, below).  That question — well here you go….

"Do you think thought leaders are 'born' or are 'self made?'"

Thought Leadership…trap..get it?  It’s funny, no?….laugh damnit! (No TJ, you can’t copy edit those sentences and I won’t use the Oxford comma here =] ).

Ok, so there we are.

Like any overeducated, overthinking professional I began to consider the question, analyze each aspect of it and pry the question apart.

That’s not true.

What I did, like any overeducated, otherthinking flack is begin to construct ridiculously configured long flowy Philosophy 302 paragraphs while skipping the substance of the question itself.  Yes, I was seduced by the mystique of a good question, a chance to stretch long dormant muscles.

Then I sat down to write and reread the question and realized I actually did not have a good answer.

So let’s examine the question first — let’s figure out what a “thought leader” is.  It turns out wikipedia can answer the question for us and get us to its first usage.  A thought leader is “a futurist or person who is recognized among peers and mentors for innovative ideas and demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable distilled insights.”

So the leader portion refers to the person’s ability to lead, not the concepts the person themselves creates as leading (groundbreaking) opinions.  So basically we’re talking about smart leaders.

Not a lot of help for Elizabeth’s question because now we have two questions:

  1. Are leaders born or self made
  2. Are thought[ful / thinking] people born or self made.

Let’s attack #2 first.  Cop out on this one — these kinds of people (we’ll call them ‘smart’ for these purposes) can be both self made and born.  We’ve all known the guy (or gal) in the office who has that spark — can walk into a room, look at a problem the rest of the team has been puzzling over for days and say, “turn it left 90 degrees” and suddenly the problem is fixed.  He’s the guy that can intuit the answer to the problem at hand.  The problem with innately smart people — it always comes easy to them and so they frequently don’t need to work particularly hard because they don’t have to.  There are definitely some who still work hard, but from my own experience they rely on their innate talents far too long and have a hard time picking up the skills required to do the hard work when it’s time.

They were the kids in school who didn’t do their math problem sample tests, questions or homework because once they learned to do whatever the question was they could just do it.  No practice required.  They could sit down at a piano and replay something they had heard days earlier, but better.  You know the type.  You hate them.

Then there’s the other guy on the team — the guy you hand the problem to who will work at it.  He’ll look like crap for days until the problem is solved because he’s at his desk researching every possible solution for way too late every night, looking up the potential answer in texts in sanskrit and because he doesn’t trust the translation he’ll learn sanskrit along the way.  He has no flair for the dramatic.  When he presents his answer it won’t be “turn it left 90 degrees.”  It’ll be 90 minutes of how he got the answer and then end with “and now turn it left 90 degrees.”  He’s a great worker, but heaven help him if he has to lie or give an answer on his feet he hasn’t prepped for.  You hate him too, but are happy to grab a beer with him.

So — short answer — both.

Now — are leaders born or self made.

All the definitions I’ve found have, in some manner or another, included two primary elements — the ability to ‘rally the troops’ — that is to get people to believe in you and/or your cause; and get them to work to that common end.

Again we’ll dispose of the 2nd one first — a good leader should be able to get their people to follow them in any cause.  We’ve seen this power abused throughout history in dictatorial regimes, etc.  The ’cause’ is secondary to the ability to get the supporters.

Now, onto the first element.  This one seems to boil down to charisma — a leader is a person charismatic enough to get others to follow their lead.

Can charisma be taught or learned?  Who knows…but it doesn’t matter because there’s a twist to our question….

The question gets more complex.  As a previously shy person, with minimal ‘charisma,’ when I was younger, over time I learned/was taught to come out of my shell and try to be more engaging (not so sure I’d go so far as to say charismatic).  Here’s the kicker  — I’m not sure I was ever ‘taught’ this.  It’s entirely possible the traits/skills were actually just dormant and I became more comfortable with them simply as something that occured as part of the maturing process one goes through in those formative years.  Meaning it’s theoretically possible for someone to seem uncharismatic and over time (whether through ‘self-making’ or simple maturity/growth) develops into a more engaging person.

To hell if I know.

But after all this (and most of a serving of absinthe) I’ve decided it doesn’t matter – sorry Elizabeth.

Here’s why — the true thought leaders, the ones that possess all the necessary skills and that spark to put it all together, will naturally emerge in some way — in their own environments, sectors, fields, etc.  Some may not go far, but they will be a leader in their own right.  The union president — yup, that’s him, give him an ivy league education and he’s a senator.  The PTA mom  — maybe (she could just be bitter and no one else cares).  The SVP that can’t get promoted because he’s too good dealing with operations and actual people — it’s her.

Odds are there’s a single true thought leader of every 100 or more that possess the necessary skills on paper.

There’s no need to identify them and refine their skills.  Those that aren’t born with it all won’t catch-up to those that have it naturally and work at it simultaneously.  And if someone doesn’t have the complete package or the desire to cultivate their talent — do we really want to force it on them?  True thought leaders will have everything needed to break away from the pack, including the desire to do so.

It would seem though, that at the end of all of this there is a single answer (ok, maybe it does matter Elizabeth).


The skillset must exist in the person to be sufficiently cultivated throughout their lifetime that they can lead when the time is right. But they must also have the innate drive to continually self-improve so they know where and how to lead their people.

This was fun.

8 thoughts on “The Thought Leadership Trap….”

  1. Pingback: Twitted by ssleger
  2. You’ve got one strange definition of “fun.”

    I believe leaders are a product of their environment. Plenty of people could be born leaders, but are reduced to another role by their circumstances. I think that’s why I like disaster movies so much: everyone starts acting exactly as their character dictates, not as the role they think they should occupy. People who wouldn’t normally be considered leader-like step up in situations like this, and the best leaders do it without anyone realizing they have taken control of the situation; they allow everyone to believe that each team member had a hand in the leading, and that they all share the positive results.

    Lao Tzu is SO in right now, guys.

    1. Hey TJ (Sorry for the late reply….y’know…)

      I completely agree with you on the disaster movie situation. Tho, I know I’ve been in more than one crisis / disaster where all anyone does is look at each other as if they’re waiting for the other to mention “Oh, yeah, I have Special Ops training and can get us out of this situation, no problem…”

      Why is it life can’t be scripted?

  3. Cog, my friend, thank you for sharing such a thoughtful response to the question. I both laughed and commiserated with you in equal parts. It is a thorny idea.

    While I’m still sorting through my own answer, I particularly liked your point that “desire” may be the ultimate differentiator for thought leaders. Desire is not a trait that can be taught, any more than I can teach my four year old that it’s not a good idea to scream loudly in a restaurant.

    Despite that, I have seen folks with the requisite skills suddenly blossom into the leaders they were always meant to be. It’s not often and it’s highly unpredictable….but it happens. Why?

    Lightning bolt of enlightenment? Great day at the gym? Hugs? No. At heart, it seems to be about a moment of self discovery.

    But can a PR practioner help that moment to occur? I think that we can, just a wee bit. Do you?

    Elizabeth (Sosnow)

    1. Hi Elizabeth –

      Thank you for the question. It was truly enjoyable turning that one around in my head for a few days, and changing my own mind a few times along the way.

      By the way – please let me know if you figure out that screaming in a restaurant thing.

      Can a PR practitioner help that moment of “self discovery” happen — without thinking about it for days and writing a few thousand words on the topic I’ll bet on red and say most definitely.

      For the potential or reluctant leader, through the right encouragement or ego stroking (e.g. providing a platform through article or commentary placements where they can demonstrate their knowledge or (wait for it) expertise in their field; putting them in contact with the right journalists for citation as an authority in their field; etc) we can provide a gentle push towards the client recognizing their own value in their chosen field, or at the very least arrange it so that others in the field recognize the client’s value, which should in turn allow the client to appreciate what they can do for their field. At which point I would hope they’d step up and move forward.

      That being said, I’m not sure someone who doesn’t already have a hint of that chutzpah to begin with would seek out PR. It may be a matter of drawing a CEO (or other exec) out of his/her shell to be the company face and promote them rather the company as a whole to get them to phase if you could get them to walk in the door.

  4. Ah, yes. The famous “hint of chutzpah.” Certainly a key ingredient for a thought leader. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of a really successful thought leader who doesn’t have at least have a small dose.

    When we start working with someone who hasn’t developed thought leadership or marketing content before, we often tell them to develop ideas that follow the 4P’s: create Prescriptive or Predictive or Provocative but ultimately Prudent ideas. In short, we start teaching them about how to develop ideas with chutzpah.

    The hope, of course, is that successful bold ideas will begin to breed comfort and perhaps help to shape a new thought leader. In the era of social media, that matters even more due to new opportunities. And you know what? Clients seem to be embracing the change. Maybe thought leadership is finally ready to gain broader acceptance?

    I’ve had fun working this one through with you…at some point maybe I’ll finally get my own post on this up…

    Until then, I like the way you roll,

    Elizabeth (Sosnow)

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