Buzzwords always abound in businesses. Each year sees new ones come and (if we are lucky) a few worn ones disappear. After all, Buzzword Bingo exists for a reason! Some of the most annoying to me are using verbs as nouns such as in “That’s a good ask.” Why not use the word “question” or “request” as the correct noun in that situation instead of misusing the word “ask”? Who knows how many years I’ve endured hearing people tell someone to “reach out” to someone at work when a simple “contact” will do the trick. You start “reaching out” to me at work and I’m calling HR on you!
So pardon me for a few paragraphs while I go on a somewhat controlled rant about a currently popular phrase that is so grossly overused and abused I feel I must take a stand. The term is “thought leader” or “thought leadership.”
The phrase isn’t new, of course, but it has become so commonly misused that the phrase is, to me, largely meaningless any more. Here are my issues with it and with how it is used:
1. Too many companies and individuals set a goal of becoming a thought leader in some field. They want to start blogging or publishing or public speaking or some combination of public activities with the explicit hope of being considered a thought leader. This seems completely backward to me. Their mistaken focus seems to be on the accolades and reputation they hope to earn because of their actions rather than the quality of the actions and benefit to others that comes as a result of their work. I’ve even heard the ridiculous discussion of whether or not the content for such “thought leadership” articles should be original or contracted out to an agency! What!? If you don’t have the ability to think your own thoughts enough to get them in writing, then you aren’t a thought leader even in your own company (maybe even in your own head), much less in any industry.
2. Any entity that refers to itself as a thought leader isn’t one. If I see “thought leader” in your Twitter or LinkedIn profile, I will not follow or connect with you. I do not care what you have to say because my first impression is that you are simply pompous and full of yourself. On the other hand, if it is others who are calling you a thought leader, then perhaps I’ll be impressed with their assessments and pay attention to what you say, but not if you are the one using it to describe yourself. Humility is a good thing. Learn it.
3. Companies cannot produce thought leaders en masse. For example, a colleague and I have been exploring employee advocacy software options over recent weeks. I can’t count how many times sales reps from the companies have tried to sell their products on the notion that we are helping employee advocates of our company become thought leaders through the use of it. Well, sorry again, but when the advocacy program largely depends on retweeting and reposting content we suggest with perhaps minor personal edits, that doesn’t make anyone a thought leader. Since when does retweeting others make anyone a thought leader? And since when did a single company have thousands of thought leaders as employees? Come on, people. Get real.
Here is my point: “Thought leader” is a title earned and bestowed by others as a result of unique, innovative, exemplary work over time. It is not a goal that anyone concerned with actually doing good work will waste time pursuing. It is never a term you should use for yourself.
Should you be so fortunate as to have others consider you a thought leader and refer to you that way, then accept their compliment with humility, be grateful that you have the opportunity to make a positive impact on others, and go on about the business of doing your very best work. History and others are far more likely to accurately describe you, your work, and its impact than you will yourself.
So go out there and do your best every single day. Only be concerned with that. Let others decide who they consider thought leaders to be. Don’t waste your time (or mine) associating the term with yourself. That’s for others to decide after you’ve earned it.