Please don’t call me a thought leader

Please don’t call me a thought leader

Social Media Down Under 2012

Three thought leaders and a bearded hobo, last week

There are certain words and phrases I find myself using every day that I wish I didn’t have to. ‘Thought leadership’ is one. ‘Community’ is another. Even ‘social media’ sticks in my throat it has become so overladen with misinterpretation, expectation and confusion.

But use them I do as they are still the established, recognised terms of today’s digital marketer. Clients and businesses talk about thought leadership so I have to talk about thought leadership. Clients and businesses are looking for social media consultants, so unless I use the words social media, they are not going to find me.

And so there is a feedback loop where these weasel words have become necessary. They are like a form of universally understood shorthand that, on rereading, doesn’t always make as much sense as it should.

Standing my ground by using more appropriate words or phrases hurts me more than anyone else, especially when you consider keyword SEO. More people search for ‘social media’ than they do ‘digital communications’ or whatever equivalent phrase one might adopt. (I’ll explain my irritation with the phrase in a later post.) And so the loop continues, encouraging more people to use the same words and phrases while simultaneously diluting them of any real insight or power.

I started thinking more about this when I was asked the other day how else I would describe ‘thought leadership’.

It is almost an impossible task. The phrase has adopted meanings, inferences and interpretations far beyond what those two words would have held the first time some bright spark in marketing (or more likely PR) put them together in order to wow a client.

What is thought leadership? Is it providing opinionated and informed editorial? Is it offering free advice in your content? Is it somehow developing the perception of being a leader in your field by the sheer force of will behind hundreds of tweets, blog posts and conference lectures — regardless of quality?

And so I open the challenge up to you. What could we replace the words ‘thought leadership’ with? And should we? Go on. Be a thought leader. What’s your best comment?


  1. BTW, I used the new ’embed tweet’ feature in the latest version of WordPress. Works well, doesn’t it!

  2. The main problem with “thought leader”, like so many corporate boilerplate words, is that it’s almost devoid of concrete meaning. We don’t need a new wafflevague term to replace the old wafflevague term. We just need to say specifically what this “thought leader” does.

    Are they a business process reengineer? (Though I balk at using the professional title “engineer” for a non-profession.) Are they a human resources planning consultant? A supply chain analyst? A marketing strategist? A product designer?

    In other words, once I have listened to the “thought leader”, and considered and followed their advice, what concrete improvement will have taken place in my businesses? Anything? Or will I have merely been “inspired” somehow, and been given that warm but essentially empty feeling of having head something “interesting” that is the stock in trade of those endless TED talks?

    • Nail. Head. And also raises another frustration I have. All these conferences, events and so on that – as you point out – offer lots of inspiration and very little practical. The number of times I’ve become frustrated at speakers talking high level concepts that the bulk of the audience can never implement. Case studies from multi-billion dolla global companies are interesting, but are pretty useless to an audience of bootstrapping SMEs, for example.

      Inspiration has its place. There are some phenomenal TED talks and I value anything that makes me think and question. But Leadership is also about doing, and setting out the steps others an follow.

      Then again, so many of the titles you mention (engineers, strategist, etc) are also words in danger o becoming waffle-vague as you so put it. Goddamn it, marketers, copywriters and corporate comms have royally screwed the language!


  3. Hi Jonathan,

    I share your frustration with the weasel words which have infiltrated modern business. Two of my least favourite which you haven’t mentioned included ‘engagement’ and ‘visionary’ both of which are overused to the point they no longer hold any significant meaning. (Steve Jobs is one of the only true visionaries of my era.)

    Do I have a new designation for thought leadership? No, I don’t. Can I define it? To me someone who is a thought leader is simply an original thinker, someone willing and able to apply new concepts to an old problem. There aren’t very many of them out there but someone like Joe Pulizzi would fall into the category of thought leadership by my definition.

    For the rest of us – you, me and a whole lot of other dedicated professionals – great execution, determination and a pursuit of excellence doesn’t make us thought leaders. Hopefully it makes us highly employable and in the search engine rankings.

  4. Hi Jonathan,

    I came over after seeing Sarah tweet your article. To me a thought leader challenges your thinking in some way and can or will back it up.

    One of my pet peeves is when people are labelled as a strategic thinker and all they have written or talked about is tactics.

  5. Richard Bell says

    To Sarah’s comment, I sort of agree that a “thought leader” is almost always an “original thinker” except I would qualify this that, at least in my experience, an original thinker who becomes, sometimes through no fault of their own, a “though leader” is then restricted in their original thinking going forward. Because what they are asked about, and normally paid for, is the ideas that made them a thought leader rather than new ideas which demonstrate further original thinking. Very few “thought leaders” (in their own lifetime) stand the test of time whereas simple original thinkers always have the ability to challenge their previous ideas.

  6. “Guru” is another that strikes me as cringe-able. I was discussing this just today and got emailed this article. I liken “thought leadership” to something like IKEA or the Container Store’s organizational tools. Essentially an un-recruited teacher that can improve my life (or insert: business) by a process they’ve discovered and shared with me (or insert: my business).

    By the same token, that improvement leads directly to a reason for me to engage in their knowledge by either sharing it with others and/or participating in their ‘business’.

    IKEA did this neat interactive flash graphic years ago about how to clean out your garage by sorting things into categorical boxes. Highly useful, and at the time, because I had a garage full of junk, also quite practical. Thought leadership on organization. As it turns out, naturally IKEA had all sorts of groovy storage products to help me put my garage back together after spring cleaning. While I didn’t buy the storage products, because I was moving, I did employ their methods and continue to do so today, 7 years later. I also still shop at IKEA. As ‘thought leaders’ their influence improved my life and won my long-term business.

    So that’s leadership, and the leader I suppose would be the person that singly represented that process… because it’s often not just one person that develops leadership concepts, but a group. That’s one of my problems with “thought leader” being assigned to a single individual. Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Mozart were thought leaders. Highly unlikely (but not impossible) that a VP of Sales for the SW region would be. But his or her team might combine forces to develop thought leadership in their industry. I use that hypothetical to point out the obvious – people often leverage words like thought leader to make up for lack of substance, originality and the impending glass ceiling of their careers.

    Just my opinion(s). Good post!