The Problem With Thought Leaders

The Problem With Thought Leaders

"Proportions of the Head". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The term "Thought Leader" makes me cringe. Especially when the person tells you they are one. Self-important egos really put me off.

This definition of a Thought Leader comes from a Forbes article

A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise. A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.

And therein lies the problem.

If someone shares their knowledge in order to share their knowledge, I trust them. If their goal however is to make money from me, my trust is harder to earn.

We need experts, not thought leaders

Experts are useful. One of the wonders of human society is how we collaborate to share expertise. Long ago we realised that if we specialised our skills, society as a whole would benefit.

Experts have achieved an unusually high level of understanding or ability through focussing on an area over a long period of time. You are not born with expertise. You develop expertise.

We're all experts in our own way. Things that come easily to us, things that are second nature but that others find difficult - this is expertise. The use of this expertise depends on the context. You could be expert at making an omelette, playing violin, hiring people, designing user interfaces, investing in companies or flying a hot air balloon. The relevance of expertise depends on whether it's useful for a given purpose.

The nature of expertise

I was reading Joshua Ford's "Moonwalking with Einstein", a book about the art and science of memory. In the book he describes work undertaken by K. Anders Ericsson and his team, a psychology professor at Florida State University and a renowed researcher into expertise.

Ford tells us that Ericcson found that;

Experts see the world differently. They notice things that nonexperts don't see. They home in on the information that matters most, and have an almost automatic sense of what to do with it. And most important, experts process the enourmous amounts of information flowing through their senses in more sophisticated ways.

Being able to process information automatically requires that we start using our subconscious minds to fast track thinking that was previously made consiciously. To do this requires practice, lots of practice. There's a clear link between experience and expertise (although they are not the same thing).

"Ancora imparo" - experts are never done

Leonardo da Vinci, someone that most of us would recognise as an expert, is credited with saying "ancora imparo" (which translates "I am still learning") when he was well into his eighties.

Experts are never done. They are always learning, absorbing new knowledge through practice.

As such there's a humility around expertise. Unlike Thought Leadership which leans towards self-aggrandisement.

Experts don't label themselves as experts

Here's the thing. Expertise is something that is conferred, not proclaimed. Someone becomes an expert because others see them as experts.

I'm fortunate to work with an amazing team of experts. I'm happy to call them that because each of my colleagues really are at the top of their game in what they do. Yet all of them find it difficult to say this. They realise how much more they have to learn. They seek out the truth, learning by doing. None of them would say "I am a thought leader", yet they've got so much to share and want to do so.

Subscribe to

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.