Thought leadership: Why it’s often cringe-inducing

Thought leadership

Thought leadership is seemingly everywhere these days. I can briefly trace the origins of the concept for you if you’d like, although it will probably bore most people, so let’s do a quick summary:

  • There are a limited amount of experts in the world on any given concept or topic
  • Those experts, by virtue of being experts, are often pressed for time
  • The Internet made it easy to find things
  • The Internet makes it hard to “vet” things
  • A bunch of people rushed in claiming “thought leadership” when in fact they’re just saying extremely obvious stuff in a relatively-attractive package

I’ll be upfront about one thing here, though. I ghost-write for a bunch of “thought leaders,” so in some respects I am part of the problem here. I’m OK with that. (“So long as the checks cash, baby!” I’m kidding.)

There is good thought leadership out there, but a lot of it is rehashed, warmed-over BS that’s cringe-inducing. Let’s explore more, shall we?

Thought Leadership Issue No. 1: How you become a thought leader

The old joke is this:

  1. Say you’re a thought leader
  2. You are one now.

Traditionally, thought leaders tend to be from these buckets:

  • Have documented expertise in an area or vertical
  • High amount of social media followers or engagement
  • Pre-existing high speaker fees

There are other — and better — definitions for thought leadership, but those tend to be the buckets people organize the idea around. 300K Twitter followers? That dude is probably a thought leader in (** scans profile for clues as to what he does **) sales, I guess! Yea, sales!

Almost any document you find on thought leadership will tell you it’s about “earning trust and credibility,” and I’d agree with that. Oftentimes, though, the way we vet thought leaders isn’t aligned with that at all. If you want more explanation on that, read this little ditty on personal branding.

Thought Leadership Issue No. 2: Everyone says the same stuff

This is the same problem with content marketing. That’s actually not surprising, because most thought leaders use content marketing to get their message out — and oftentimes it’s the same rehashed type of message everyone else is pushing out.

Now look, I understand that most ideas are just repackaged versions of older ideas. I also realize that there’s only so many things you can say about a topic like “leadership” before you just want to scream “Hey, don’t be an asshole to those you manage, OK?” So I get the redundancy aspect of thought leadership, for sure.

But stop me if you’ve seen these terms in a thought leadership article:

  • Organic feedback
  • Product road map
  • Employee engagement
  • Purpose-driven culture
  • Mission alignment

Of course you have. They come up in every article, speech, YouTube video, etc. that you come across. They’re also all buzzwords. You would think this would be a bad thing, but it’s not … and that’s because of the next point.

Thought Leadership Issue No. 3: It almost has to have no edge

Different people in thought leadership have different primary revenue streams. For many, though, speaking is No. 1. If you want speaking gigs, you (often, not always) can’t say controversial shit — or else CEOs and others that vet speakers won’t want to hire you. Most of big-time speaking on a topic is like NFL coaching carousels anyway; the big names get all the speeches because people have heard of them before. I imagine it’s hard to break into those arcs. I haven’t really tried, per se.

Because of how we vet these people, we get a lot of antiseptic product from them. No edge. Buzzwords galore. Complete avoidance of the real issue. No actual examples, just pie-in-the-sky stuff. You’ve all sat through these speeches.


Some thought leadership is powerful, i.e. TED Talks, etc. Most is no-edge hogwash.

Secretly I think a lot of CEOs and Chief Learning Officers know this stuff is “fluffy.” They fly in a speaker. The speaker speaks for 1 hour. 1 hour later, are the managers from that meeting doing any better? No. They’re doing the same stuff they were doing 3 hours ago. The thought leadership was basically a second lunch break. Most people “get” that, but we still spend billions on books and plane fares around thought leadership. It’s odd.

Thought Leadership Issue No. 4: It’s sales

At this moment, you can screech at me: “Everything is sales.” You would not be wrong. But we need a quick reality check here. Joe Bob Bobberson from Anarchy Ninja Marketing in Florida just wrote a white paper. Do you think Mr. Bobberson wrote that white paper because he genuinely wants to educate others on the topic?

Absolutely not.

Bobberson wrote that white paper because he’s chasing leads. He’s then going to turn those leads into sales. Honestly, there’s someone in the world who will download that white paper and get about 72,371 e-mails from Bobberson in the next three weeks.

“Hey noticed you haven’t opened my last 14,399 emails, so here’s a new offer!”

Let me put this bluntly: thought leadership can be done properly, yes. But to many, it’s a sales and marketing trick. That’s all it is. It’s sales “disguised” as something else.

It’s kinda like saying “I would love to own that thing over there, but I don’t want to be theft-y, so I’ll call what I’m doing something else!”

That’s where the term “thought leadership” emerged.

Thought Leadership Issue No. 5: You can’t diagnose yourself

True story here. Had a job once and someone asked me to update the LinkedIn profile of the CEO. (No idea how that one fell to me, but whatever.) I do it and he writes me back, and basically the only thing he says is: “I need to be called a futurist.”

Now, of course I added it — because he was the CEO and I was some peon. That’s how hierarchy works, baby! But I laughed my ass off the whole time. You cannot call yourself a futurist.

That’s like going up to a girl in a bar and being like “Sexually, I am superb. Very above average.” In 2016, you can win a Presidential nomination doing that — but in most contexts, it’d get you slapped.

That’s the same deal with “futurists” or “thought leadership.” Someone can read your stuff or watch your speeches and say that about you, but you cannot anoint yourself as it. And sadly, many people do.

Thought Leadership Issue No. 6: The term makes no sense and doesn’t work

Here’s what I mean by “makes no sense:” we don’t actually lead people’s thoughts. That might seem semantic, but here’s what I mean. Let’s say you go to your boss and he’s handed you a problem. He says, “What do you have for me on that problem?” You respond, “I have a ton of thoughts.”

Is your boss happy? Maybe in the first meeting, sure. In the second/third/fourth? No. We don’t care about “thoughts.” That’s not what business is about to most guys who run businesses. It’s about action. Targets. Deliverables. Growth. Money. Show it to me.

That’s “The Spreadsheet Mentality.” There’s no room for “thoughts” there.

As for my “doesn’t work” argument: many people can throw info here about the value/importance of influencers, etc. I’ve seen all that. I get it. You can find a study to prove anything, honestly. I could probably find you 11 in the next hour on how infidelity is good, or the Holocaust was fake, or whatever else.

For thought leadership to work, the supposed thought leader needs to generate a bunch of content. It can be eBooks, blogs, white papers, speech videos, podcasts, etc. But you need to be out there proving your thought leadership.

Here’s the problem, though: the supply of content is growing massively. The demand? Not so much.

This is the major problem we never discuss in thought leadership and content production.

You can’t be chasing thought leadership if you’re not getting noticed, and in the modern world, many are not.

Any other thoughts on thought leadership and its drawbacks?

Ted Bauer