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….
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:
- Are leaders born or self made
- 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.