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So why aren’t thought leaders saving the world yet?

Thought leaders

If you found 1,000 random people and said “thought leaders” to them, I’m guessing you’d get back about 875 or more audible groans. The whole notion of “thought leadership” can be somewhat cringe-inducing for many reasons, not the least of which is the term itself. Business isn’t about managing thoughts and never has been. It’s about driving action. I think that’s where a lot of the “Oh My God, this is a true buzzword” attitude about thought leaders probably begins.

There’s a flip side to this equation, though. There are probably north of 10,000 thought leaders out there today. They talk about different industries, yes: some are discussing marketing, some the future of work, some how to maximize your sales team. Jeez M. Crow, there are “millennial thought leaders” — even though the entire notion of “the millennial mindset” is, quite frankly, horse manure. Thought leaders come in all shapes and sizes. (Let’s not confuse the term with “influencers,” although many do. “Influencers” tend to make funny, off-task videos for big corporations and get paid out the ass for it.)

To contrast “thought leaders” with “influencers,” here’s how thought leaders tend to make money:

  • Writing books
  • Speaking fees
  • Consulting for other businesses
  • Washing dishes for CEOs

OK, I made up the last one. Made ya look! But no, seriously, those are the income streams of thought leaders.

So, we generally know that companies like to keep costs down (well, some do) and revenues up. But at most places I’ve worked or seen, an exec will hire some thought leaders — or fly them in to speak to a team — without batting an eyelash. This is good for that cohort, as they’re making money. But … is management getting any better (if the topic is work)? Are the marketing teams getting better (if that’s the specific idea)? Will sales rise after some sales thought leaders appear in front of that team?

I can answer these questions for you quickly. No, no — and, you guessed it — “probably not a fucking chance.”

Thought leaders ain’t saving the world — or even really changing how we do most of our conventional work — so that begs the question: Why?

The inherent time management issue with thought leaders

One of the problems with advertisements — or email, honestly — is that it’s a distraction. It stops you from doing the main thing you were supposed to be doing. Most people are horrible at managing their time, and this is usually worse in a work context.

But there’s always new commitments and priorities (ha, “priorities”) at work, right? So here’s what happens at most jobs, as a result:

  • Stuff is piling up, but …
  • … you don’t want to grind all day … (good for you!)
  • … you allow yourself to be distracted by other random stuff …
  • … goals aren’t hit …
  • … managers snarl at you …
  • … depression ensues and you update your LinkedIn profile in haste

Trite? Sure. But also reality for many. This is where “thought leaders” come in. They write breathless articles that your manager forwards you. Or, they come speak at a company event. The CFO who introduces the thought leader is giddy with excitement. This guy here has a best-selling book! He’s gonna get us all in line and drive our revenue through the roof! Hell yea! (O-Face goes here.)

What happens? Three hours later, everything happening after that speech is the same as what was happening yesterday. A week later? Someone is asking what thought leaders are. “Oh, like that guy who spoke?” (pause) “What guy who spoke? When?”

We live in The Time Management Era now. Thought leaders should bolster that, but oftentimes they’re a distraction to it instead.

But why are thought leaders a distraction instead of a value-add?

Let me hit this target real quick and smooth. Our culture is achievement-oriented. Most thought leaders don’t necessarily speak from a place of achievement. They speak from a place of fulfillment or bigger picture. This is good — and noble — but what happens when we get back to our desks?

We got things to do. Targets to hit. Numbers to make. And those thought leaders we left behind in the auditorium? All the talk of “mission and purpose and defining who your customer is?” That’s great. It was inspirational. But now my boss is crapping down my throat about some “tight deadlines” with a “sense of urgency,” and I better go get after that.

If you think I’m wrong, well, F.U. No, I’m kidding. I respect all opinions. But here’s a fun little game you can play. Go find a series of articles written by thought leaders. I’m sure the topics will include purpose, vision, mission, email management, etc. Now take one of those articles and email it to a boss in your company. There are two potential things that can happen:

  • “Thanks Jim, I’ll read this later!”
  • No response

Not a single person in human history has received an article by thought leaders and responded, well, thoughtfully to it. It just doesn’t happen. Ignore, delete, skim later, or slap the employee who sent it to you on a PIP. Read, respond, be thoughtful? Hell no.

Thought leaders = a distraction.

So why are we still paying thought leaders, then?

If we’re being totally honest here, we’re paying 21.4 million middle managers in the U.S. alone who add no value back to their companies. That’s akin to why we’re paying thought leaders. Other companies do it, and we can, so … we should, right? Most decisions at enterprise-level companies aren’t exactly “full of logic.”




 

Look, I love me some Adam Grant or whomever else. I read their shit and I quote it on this blog and in other places. It’s really interesting. But I’ve seen guys like that speak and been surrounded by 100 co-workers who were diddling on their phones the whole time. I myself am interested in that stuff, yes — but I’m weird as hell. Most people want to hit targets, have a non-wanker boss, get health insurance, get paid above market, and go home at 5pm. (Then check email at 10pm to show how committed they are.) Most people honestly don’t care about what thought leaders are saying, because it’s usually pretty pie in the sky. But we’re paying ’em because, well, most of business is just copying what seems to be working for others or falling for sales pitches.

And in reality, all “thought leadership” really is? It’s a repackaged sales trick designed as something more noble.

So how could thought leaders be more value-add?

Pretty basic here. I’d say:

  • Specific examples of problems being solved
  • Action items/steps related to that industry
  • Revenue growth numbers based on “XYZ” thing happening
  • Hard data as opposed to “shareable slides”
  • End with three things to do that day — and make the execs follow up on whether those things happened

Here’s the problem, of course: thought leaders come from a consulting model. In that model, you hit your Ds (deliverables), you get paid, and then you fly out. No fuss, no muss. What happens later? Not my problem — I’m onto some new urgent client needs, baby! That’s another reason why thought leaders stuff is so awful and low-context. They’re getting paid and they’re getting to the airport, yo. Who cares what the intended audience does with it three days later, so long as the check cashes? Am I right?

Final thing here: see where I said “action items/steps related to industry?” That’s another problem. Sometimes you’ll see thought leaders come in who are all about manufacturing, and those presentations will be good. But oftentimes these people get hired on referral, and all the big companies are using the same guys and ladies. Those thought leaders have probably mostly worked in tech, academia, sales, or marketing. But they get $8K to speak at some podcasting conference or whatever, and what are they going to do? Learn the nuances of what podcasters worry about? No time! Use the same canned speech I just used to the bigwigs at Aetna Health, son!

You can’t learn from a place that isn’t specific to where you’re at, and that’s an issue with thought leaders too.

What else you got on thought leaders as a concept?

Ted Bauer

7 Comments

  1. Hmm, I’ve never thought of ‘thought leadership’ as ‘motivational speaking’ before. It may just be semantics, but I’ve always seen thought leadership in the context of content marketing, where businesses strive to be perceived as thought leaders [innovators, cutting edge, and the like] in their industry through their content [client presentations, white papers, blog posts, etc]. The ultimate goal is to be the go-to company when your audience/customer is looking for widgets/services. You’re trying to demonstrate that you understand them and the industry best. If I replace ‘thought leaders’ with ‘motivational speakers’ throughout your post, I see your point completely. Always a fun read!

    • I think that’s how a lot of execs view the term, as they’re too busy to actually read/consume what these train wrecks are chasing.

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