I have a problem with the term “thought leader”.

According to Dictionary.com, “leader” is described this way:

– noun
a person or thing that leads.
a guiding or directing head, as of an army, movement, or political group.

We all know what a thought is, so no real need to go to a dictionary for that. So, put the two of them together to get thought leader, and we’re basically saying someone that leads an army just by their thoughts alone.

Since we’re not living in The Matrix yet, this is where my problem with the term thought leader comes in, and offering someone that title.

We don’t lead people’s thoughts.

People aren’t so dumb that they need someone to lead the way to have a thought. People don’t need to be taken by the hand and led to a big Thought River where they’re then instructed to drink from it by the almighty Leader.

No. People have their own thoughts every single day. Some make it into an action stage. Some don’t.

But they’re not led to that place, or that revelation. They’re not waiting in a holding pattern until the next megastar blogger or speaker or author or celebrity comes along and leads the way.

To lead is to direct. How do you direct any thoughts but your own? Besides, thoughts are intangible until put into action. If there is any reaction from someone else’s thoughts, then it’s after the intangible has become tangible.

A reaction to an action. So it’s more thought reaction than thought leadership.

I read two great posts today about “thought leadership”. Both spoke about some of the people and thoughts that are meant to have us nod sagely and proclaim them as thought leaders.

Geoff and Doug both make bang-on points about why this type of thinking is bogus, and why thought leadership is a conflict in terms just waiting to happen.

You don’t need to be led. No-one does. At least, not when it comes to thoughts. You might need to be led in a new job until you’re familiar with the set-up, or how to please your new partner in bed until you know what makes them tick.

But thought leadership? Something doesn’t sit right with that term.

If anything, it should be thought breedership. There’s a ton of folks offering their thoughts on a variety of topics, and they (rightly so) inspire you to action.

But they don’t lead you to action.

Maybe we should be talking thought breedership instead. I guess the problem is, because everyone can breed thoughts in others, it might just upset those that want to be known as thought leaders.

And we couldn’t have that now, could we?

image: AsGood

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  1. Rob says

    Nice post Danny. For me (and our business) we think of using our blog as a “thought leader” in our market to showcase our experience and “leadership” in our niche. I don’t see it as a literal translation, more of a business term for displaying your expertise on a subject.

    Ultimately, we hope that through our blog, we can demonstrate what we can bring to the table for prospective clients. Whether that’s called “thought leadership” or “super cool company I want to host my website” does not really matter to me, as long as the end goal is achieved.

    But I agree that the literal meaning of the phrase is pretty lame and not really applicable.

    • says

      @Rob See, if it’s a core collection of ideas and tangible assets (if you like), I can see where the term could be used, Rob. It’s the whole person-as-thought-leader that kinda makes me hive-y. 😉

    • SheilaAtwood says

      @Dannybrown @Rob It is not even a matter of individuals that claim to be thought leaders that gives me the heebie-geebies.

      When I first saw this term I wondered where the idea got is root.

      Whole entire nations have risen up on the basis of thought leadership. Nazi Germany and communist Russia for example.

      Authoritarian parents and shools do it all the time. To a child a teacher and a parent are the thought leaders.

      Physchitrists have become thought leaders and dole out mind altering drugs by the boat loads.

      There are 3 ways we influence other people… enrichement, domination or invalidation.

      Domination and invalidation do not work. They make puppets out of people.

      Enrichment takes into consideration the power of choice and increases the ability to make your own decisions.

  2. Frank_Strong says

    Ah, Danny, it’s a different direction for this conversation. I definitely believe in thought leadership: Despite his propensity for drink, Sam Adams was a thought leader. Martin Luther King was a thought leader. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a thought leader. Thought leadership, IMHO, is about two things: 1) being first and 2) saying it when no one else has the courage to say it. You want to test a man’s character, said Abraham Lincoln, don’t give him adversity, give him power. Your term “breedership” reminds me of this propensity for “personal branding” which I believe is misguided. It’s a complex argument, I’ll admit, but that’s my view from a guy in the stands commenting on the thought leader’s opinion.

    • says

      @Frank_Strong And this is why I love thoughts, Frank, because they are so different – and exactly why they can’t be led.

      Is being first being a thought leader, or someone who was first to put their own thoughts into action? And it doesn’t mean that thought will necessarily get picked up – for all the great thoughts, there are a ton of almost great and nowhere near so, but they were still first out the gate.

      I think courage is a different matter – that’s belief, and leadership doesn’t necessarily engender belief. Just look at Dubya Bush – he may have “led” but how many truly believed in him?

      With you 100% on the personal branding issue, though I was looking at breedership as giving the power of thought to others and cultivating (breeding) it.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, sir, much appreciated and chewable fodder. :)

  3. geoffliving says

    Maybe if it were scientists — teams of scienntists trying to resolve the world’s greatest problems in competition this might apply. But it’s not usedthat way, it’s standard business bunk to assume a position of elite stature. Real leadership in ideas would breed, cultivate, provoke and stimulate fantastic new thoughts and innovation from others as opposed to asserting control.

    Great post.

    • says

      @geoffliving I read Creative Capitalism, and for the life of me could not understand why we’re more worried about being famous for nothing as opposed to being famous for something. Because if we’re viewed as leaders in the sense that Creative Capitalism wanted us to be, that would mean there’s one heck of a good reason behind it.

      Plus ca change…

  4. thebrandbuilder says

    I love everything about this post, right down to the graphic.

    Best line ever: “We don’t lead people’s thoughts.” Nicely done.

  5. hacool says

    It seems that it really comes down to semantics. I’ve always considered “thought leaders” to be those who are the first ones to come up with an idea, or to regularly come up with new viewpoints or strategies in a particular subject area, and who then share those ideas with others. So I guess I hadn’t considered it so much as guiding but more as being in the lead as one might be when one is winning a race. But when you look at the phrase from your perspective, I agree, we can show people the kool-aid, but we can’t make them drink it (or think it.)

    • says

      @hacool Is that a thought leader or an idea generator, Heidi? 😉

      I guess I just have an issue with the whole idea that people’s thoughts can be led – to me, that’s not leadership, it’s indoctrination. And we all know how good that is…

    • hacool says

      @Dannybrown Well I guess our ideas begin with thoughts…. 😉
      I think the people (whatever we call them) who come up with new ideas and approaches can (but don’t always) serve as educators. In some cases they might teach and guide people towards best practices or new methods, but they should also encourage people to use critical reasoning to develop their own new ideas, and build upon what they learn. Perhaps what a thought leader should be is someone who inspires others to take their own thoughts and further develop them into ideas they can apply to their business, life, etc.

  6. JGoldsborough says

    Hey, Danny. One of my favorite things about your blog is you always make me think. And this post is no different. I completely agree that we don’t leasd peoples’ thoughts, we inspire through our own thoughts and actions. That said, I also agree with @hacool that it really is a bit of semantics.

    I know many people who hate the term influencer. And several more who can’t stand personal brand. But the fact is that a lot of people use these terms. IMO, what’s most important is that when someone uses the term influencer, they actually know what they are talking about and are using it in a context that makes sense depending on the situation.

    What I like here is that you’ve taken the time to explain what you see wrong with using thought leader as a general term. To me, that education — instead of evaneglizing against buzzwords — is the most important thing that can come from a conversation like this. Cheers.

    • says

      @JGoldsborough Hey there Justin, cheers sir, and I agree with both you and @hacool , it can come down to semantics.

      Perhaps leading by example and making others think is thought leadership, from that standpoint? I’m just still struggling with the whole “leading people’s thoughts” picture that I get when I hear the term.

      But, food for thought, mate, thanks.

  7. KayBallard says

    Hi, Danny. As you may recall, Twitter has determined that we are similar. Knowing that they couldn’t possibly be mistaken and have sophisticated algorithms to determine such things, we are dissimilar in the way we consider the prhase “thought leader.” I think it is an excellent, although perhaps over used, phrase to describe someone who is frequently and intentionally on the leading edge of thought on a particular topic.

    True thought leaders have great value to the human endeavor.

  8. keithprivette says

    I am gulping from the river now…..Holy cow Danny this is so dead on, but the funny thing is, well I guess it is not funny, most of our companies are run this way. And we wonder why our “thought leaders” at companies have trouble activating their employees. Well it is because their assumption is they have to lead our thoughts…..

    • says

      @keithprivette The amount of news stories and press releases I see about “Company X has appointed respected Thought Leader Y to revamp the company’s fortunes”, only to see the same person leave 6 months later with the company in an even worse state than it was previously. Gah!

      Employees aren’t stupid – they’re only “thought of” as so. Big mistake.

  9. says

    Like most things turned into a catch phrase, it seems to come down to marketing. Case in point, Wikipedia has Joel Kurtzman (editor-in-chief of multiple magazines) as the man who coined the phrase.

    I am certain there is a better way to describe people who are the first to vocalize revolutionary ideas but it probably won’t sound as sexy. In fact as a designer I was always taught, there is no such thing as new ideas, just modifications of old ones.

    When it comes down to the real meat and potatoes of what you’re saying, I agree and believe it is in the same boat as the term “expert”. Assigned so frequently that it has a similar smell to a used car salesman telling you “she’s a beauty”.

    • says

      @JayTurn I wrote a blog post about the difference between Revolution and Evolution recently, Jay, and it follows on from your point completely. “Thought leadership” seems to fit in there too – there’s very little newness on the scene, just either different ways to say something, or be the first to say it. That doesn’t make you a leader, though, just the first – and that doesn’t always waork out, either…

  10. says

    You say people don’t NEED to be led to the Thought River to drink…but some people seem to want that.

    They want to be shown how to do everything – how to use the tools, what to say, how to say it.

    They want the next guru to stand on a stage and tell them how to be happy, successful, rich, or all of the above.

    And because some people want that, selling snake oil is a multimillion dollar industry.

    I do agree that a lot of us are not looking for the next big “thought leader” to wow us with their wisdom and show us all the answers. But the more time I spend online, the more I think that a lot of us are not the norm.

    • says

      @Susan Murphy Why do you think that is, Sue? Years of being downtrodden by bosses who say we’ll never amount to much? Partners eating away at our self-confidence?

      Or just an innate desire to be loved at any cost?

    • geoffliving says

      @Susan Murphy I would add that I think our job is to “awaken” them, to open their eyes so they can see the power that they have, the potential of what they as an individual can contribute. If we succeed with one in a thousand, isn’t that progress?

  11. Samudary says

    Hey Danny,

    I agree with what you’re saying. We could simply say “leader” since a leader is already expressing his thoughts that inspire people to action and even deeper thought. So a “thought leader” is not that different from a regular “leader.” In my opinion, the term is just a fad and will fade away.

  12. mickeygomez says

    Danny, another thought-provoking post, thanks! I read this last night and am still digesting, but on the way in to work it hit me – what really bothers me about the term “thought leader” is the fact that it implies (to me, anyway) that thought leaders don’t have to “walk the talk.”

    I realize that it’s a matter of interpretation, of course, but to me the term evokes this image of the sage sitting above the world thinking great things and being all visionary but not actually DOING anything. More importantly, it evokes a sense of elitism and one-way communication, and a lack of genuine interaction with others deemed outside of the designated “chosen”.

    I much prefer the idea of people being able to share and communicate openly, and this term seems to put limitations on that freedom. Just my perspective.

  13. danperezfilms says

    Enjoyed reading your post. I think these social media buzz words are starting to be challenged. I also read Geoff & Doug’s posts (which were both excellent) and I can’t agree enough. I’d like to take a look at a couple of your observations:

    “You don’t need to be led. No-one does. At least, not when it comes to thoughts.” Unfortunately, people do need to be led; actually want to be led, especially when it comes to thoughts. Most people are unhappy with their present situations, and especially their jobs but they don’t know how to get out of the rut (takes way too many thoughts to figure it out, yes?). But along comes the likes of Tony Robbins, Les Brown, Stephen Covey, etc and guess what? They’re bringing the thoughts you need to have to change your life…now! This is why the self-improvement business is a billion dollar industry. These so-called “thought leaders” know this and they prey upon it; make a living off of it with books like “Engage”.

    Secondly: “So it’s more thought reaction than thought leadership.” I agree here. The question is, why aren’t we challenging these thoughts? Thoughts, ideas & opinions were made to be challenged, yes? In most case, there is no data to support the idea but most people just assume the “thought” as a valid one because the person is already recognized as a “thought leader”; they’ve succeeded in making the perception a reality (kudos for them!). In many cases (Seth Godin, for one) the information is so banal and stale, that I’m amazed his posts aren’t mocked instead of praised.

    The reality is that there are few new thoughts for business & life success that you can’t already find in Napoleon Hill’s 1937 publication “Think & Grow Rich”. As a social media community, we need to analyze and challenge these “thoughts” and ideas and make it a little harder for these so-called leaders to make a living off the ignorance of the masses.

    “Thought leaders”, “influencers”, “gurus”…lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! Nuff said.

    • geoffliving says

      @danperezfilms I love Napoleon Hill’s book. I often say the best book on social media was written by Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Of course now those words mean something different as the book was written 80 years ago, but with dictionary in hand its not hard to wade through either classic.

    • says

      @danperezfilms Hey there Dan, great points sir.

      To the first one, that’s where I see these guys as being thought breeders as opposed to thought leaders. They’re enabling/encouraging othes to question (which dovetails into your second point), but they’re not leading to water. If the likes of Tony Robbins or similar actually took a person, “controlled” their thought paths and through that alone made them successful (hand-in-hand, mind you), then maybe I’d look at the term again.

      And you’re right – we should be challenging more. The banal and the popcorn blogs have had a good enough run – time to cash in the leeway.

      Cheers as always, sir.

    • danperezfilms says

      @geoffliving Geoff, great point – that’s another book I’ve referenced in the past. Once you understand the technology, building relationships doesn’t differ a whole lot from what Mr. Carnegie wrote in his book decades ago. More people, especially our younger generation should revisit these books – the stuff still works.

      PS – Thoroughly enjoyed your recent post on “Thought Leaders” – terrific stuff. “Almost” as good as Mr. Brown’s (gotta say that being that I’m commenting on the man’s blog!)

    • danperezfilms says

      @Dannybrown @danperezfilms @geoffliving Perish the thought! Moreover, I never personally attack the writer, only the content – you’re safe…at least for this post 😉

    • geoffliving says

      @danperezfilms @Dannybrown I’d rather you callout my content with my name with it. I’m Ok with criticism, even if it takes me a day to digest it. It makes me grow.

  14. chadkettner says

    Is the NHL’s “scoring leader” is one who guides others to scoring? No… it’s the top scorer.

    Is the “race leader” one who guides others to racing? Nope again.

    Danny, you’re only looking at one definition of the word “leader”. To lead is also to be the “top” or “best” at something. So if you are a thought leader, you are essentially thinking ahead of the pack. You are on the ‘cutting edge’ of thought. And I don’t think this means everybody needs to follow your lead. But then again, if you truly are a ‘thought leader”, people would probably do well to emulate you… much like a young NHL player would do well to learn from the scoring leader.

    It’s not always about guiding others. It’s about being unique and not following the status-quo. It’s about innovation. And if that leads to outstanding results, of course others would benefit by listening to what you have to say.

    • geoffliving says

      @chadkettner I love this. “Thought leadership” means you are likely to be unpopular not the most celebrated. So true.

    • says

      @chadkettner Agree 100%, Chad, I am looking at it just from one definition, and it’s the one that most people don’t care about, except the dicks that strive to be one by spouting BS and creating a cult around them.

      I’m all for innovation and leading from the front. But the idea of “thought leadership” (in the definition I use in the post)? No thanks.

      Just one quick thing – leading doesn’t always mean to be the best. Look at Betamax – far superior to VHS, yet the second-to-the-market one out because of better marketing (and cheaper costs).

      Good points, Chad, cheers mate. :)

    • chadkettner says

      @Dannybrown True enough. The cultish ‘thought leadership’ definitely needs to go. I enjoyed many of your comments as much as the article. It’s clarified your stance quite a bit and I totally agree with you. Keep up the good work.

  15. dariasteigman says

    I love blog posts that generate a good discussion, and this one’s clearly done that.

    Adding my two cents to the conversation: 1) You can’t self-proclaim yourself a thought leader, no matter how “popular” you think you are. I love your distinction between inspiration and leading. 2) The HBR article annoyed me when I first saw it, especially the reference to “flaunting high-quality affiliations.” As if name dropping is going to elevate your reputation. I’ve found that the people who don’t flaunt “high profile” acquaintances are the ones that actually have influence because they’re building networks and treating everyone as equally important and valuable.

    • says

      @dariasteigman I liken it to some of the “marketers” I’ve come across in my time. If I have to ask you what you do, you haven’t done your job. If I come to you because I’ve heard what you do, you have.

      Same with “thought leaders”, like you say.

      And great point about the network building too, Daria – spot on.

  16. LucretiaMaddenPruitt says

    As I said over on Doug’s post – I’ve always thought the term sounded a little “cult-ish”.

    If we’re getting to create new terms? I’m more inclined toward “thought catalyst”. I hate the term “followers” and the whole concept that there are a few inspirational, influential folks and everyone else is sheep.
    My inspirations? Come from all sorts of people. But few who consider themselves ‘thought leaders’.

  17. janebinnion says

    …and in fact it could be argued that there are no original thoughts anyway , just recycled thoughts! Or more likely it is just some people putting into words what many others were already thinking but didn’t have time to write down.

  18. GiniDietrich says

    I don’t love the term “thought leader” either (though I don’t have a better option that will work with clients and have them know what the heck we’re saying), but I think you’re wrong in that you can’t lead people’s thoughts.

    There are many, many people who don’t have original thoughts (to @janebinnion point) and are easily swayed because they can’t think critically. It used to be (like @MarkDykeman says) that thought leader equaled pundit. But now we have bloggers who can be considered pundits, thought leaders, or experts.

    The term is not a social media term. It’s been around, in the communication sphere, forever. The way we’re using technology just enhances the ability to become a leader in how one thinks and gives us access to people who wouldn’t necessarily be on TV or write for a national publication.

    So, rather than think about it as leading a person’s thoughts (which I still think happens more than you’re willing to admit – there are A LOT of dumb people in this world), think of it as someone who can take the information they’re given and look at it differently than most. That is thought leadership.

    • says

      @GiniDietrich @janebinnion @MarkDykeman Is leading by example thought leadership though? I have a thought; I put it into practice; others like it and use or adapt. Is that thought leadership or thought curating?

      I think that’s where my mindset comes in.

    • GiniDietrich says

      @Dannybrown @janebinnion @MarkDykeman Leading by example is in the way you behave – you do as you would like others to do – living the Golden Rule. For instance, part of our culture is collaboration and teamwork. It’d be hard for me to instill that kind of culture if I didn’t roll up my sleeves and do some dirty work. That’s leading by example.

      Thought leadership (or curating or catalyst) is looking at what people are saying about the extinction of net neutrality, for instance, and talking about how to prepare your business for the possibility. We can all read the news and understand what Google and Verizon want to do the Internet, but the thought leaders are the ones who can take that information and tell ma shop owner what that means for her ecommerce platform.

    • says

      @GiniDietrich @janebinnion @MarkDykeman Maybe it’s in the semantics, but I still see that as thought curation or even thought strategy. But hey, that’s just me. Food for thought – cheers, Gini :)

    • janebinnion says

      @GiniDietrich I have worked with young people and communities for over 20 years, in many places and I really have to say that I think you are out of order ginigietrich saying that there are a LOT of dumb people in this world. There are people that do not share your opinion or mine, for whatever reason. To call them dumb is naive and rude. There are also a lot of brilliant people in the world that lack literacy skills and so are excluded from this debate. Be grateful that you have the skill, time and resource to express your opinion. Despite my skill and experience I would not call myself a thought leader or an expert, just lucky!

    • GiniDietrich says

      @janebinnion That’s totally fair. I get frustrated easily with people who are close-minded and refuse to listen to another’s opinion or open their minds to other thoughts and ideals. I took a short cut and called those people dumb. I’m with you – I would not call myself a thought leader or an expert and Lord help me if I ever have a mind that isn’t open enough to listen to varying thoughts and opinions. Thanks for calling me out.

    • janebinnion says

      @GiniDietrich You’re welcome! Ha ha, that’s what I do best :) The reason I read Danny’s posts is because he promotes good old fashioned respect and anti-elitism (or at least that’s what I read into it!) and that is refreshing this day and age. It would be great if it caught on. Though that wouldn’t make him a thought leader of course, as showing respect is as old as humanity, it just gets lost now and then in competitiveness.

  19. CraigBadings says

    Danny, you raise an interesting point and one that has clearly struck a cord with others. The problem with your debate is that it mirrrors the discussion that has raged around the term public relations for over 40 years. To this day people passionately argue for and against the term.

    Thought leadership rightly or wrongly is a term applied to a certain area of marketing and no doubt, if yours and other posts are anything to go by, it too will be a hotly debated term for some time yet.

    The key to thought leadership is not about leading someone elses thoughts, rather it is about sharing deep knowledge or insights on a particular topic in order to frame the debate or discussion around that topic. The emphasis should be on sharing information. In so doing, the thought leader’s intention should be to influence people to see things differently and thereby change their perceptions about that subject possibly influencing their business/personal decisions as a result of this new information.

    I’d say that thought leadership applied in this way is actually a pretty useful business tool.

    • says

      @CraigBadings That’s a fair point, Craig, and is similar to the ones raised by @GiniDietrich and others on the definition. I can definitely see where you’re coming from, so perhaps it is semantics?

      The key part for me and my “take” is in this sentence from the post:

      “We don’t lead people’s thoughts.”

      In each of the views that thought leadership is a bona-fide term (and I’m not disputing it, just offering why I dislike it), the example is about sharing deep insights and knowledge, and thereby influencing a mindset.

      I agree with this – I just still see that as curation or initiating the next move. That’s not necessarily leadership, but giving someone a push. Again, encouragement and curation.

      But, like I say, that’s just my take – there are plenty others with valid points and better examples of why I’m wrong, which is why I love having these open forums to discuss. :)

      Cheers for some great points, Craig.

  20. CraigBadings says

    Danny I think you’re right it is semantics and if someone can come up with a better phrase to capture it, fantastic.

    Sure we don’t lead people’s thoughts but we can certainly influence them and their perceptions with new insights. And herein lies the nub of thought leadership – having that depth of knowledge and research to deliver new insights to business or socio economic and political challenges.

  21. 47project says

    This is a great post…..and will be influencing my next post…..I agree with many of your points about the annoyance of the current use of ‘thought leadership’ in the same way that I’m annoyed with ‘social media’…


  22. says

    The problem with your logic is you use the second bullet of leadership, not the first. If you didn’t believe people’s thoughts led you, Danny, you wouldn’t subscribe to their blogs nor care what people commented here. This comment — THIS COMMENT BY ME — is full of my thought. By your reading it, or commenting after it, implies my thought is leading you to that action, no?