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article imageOp-Ed: Hey thought leaders! Can you think? Like, at all?

By Paul Wallis     Apr 4, 2012 in Lifestyle
Sydney - This article isn’t going to be full of awe and praise for the world’s self-proclaimed thought leaders. You may have also guessed there’s a reason for that. I’ve been researching “thought leadership”, and the more I see, the more I despise.
This probably needs a bit of background. I grew up when thought leaders were actual high level thinkers, not speakers doing vaudeville acts on lecture circuits.
To me, “thought leaders” meant people who actually thought ahead and didn't just steal/claim to understand other people's old ideas, like:
1. Aldous Huxley
2. Julian Huxley
3. Isaac Asimov
4. George Orwell
5. Voltaire
6. The early environmentalists, Durrell, Attenborough, Carson, etc.
7. The early feminists, pre the descent of feminism into doggerel.
This, obviously, was in the pre-computer era, before everyone became a genius and refused to shut up on all subjects. It was also necessary to read and actually understand these people, not pick up a brochure and a T shirt and claim to have achieved enlightenment.
One of the more interesting aspects of these thought leaders was that they also asked as many questions as they tried to answer. They also didn’t claim omniscience, which is a terrible faux pas these days.
Getting tired of the endless recycling of the various odds and ends of “thought”, which was almost as bad as the 19th century reworking of bits of Chopin at different speeds and unbelievably verbose, I didn’t even encounter the phrase “thought leader” until working on a US site a few years ago.
This was the beginning of disenchantment, and it was based on the various issues raised by a Robert Wood Johnson survey of nursing in the US.
I quote from my old article:
The slideshow which accompanies this report (PDF document) indicates an overwhelming vote of confidence in the ability of nurses to make a positive impact across the entire spectrum of health care. It also includes a list of perceived barriers to nursing input, which is a virtual indictment of the industry’s archaic culture, including:
1. Nurses aren’t decision makers
2. Doctors generate revenue
3. No single voice
4. No leadership options
5. No strategic vision
6. Education compared to doctors
7. Stereotypes
8. Media depiction
Note point 8. My take on this was:
Are they saying the industry would like to see a nurse running a hospital on TV, before they try it themselves?
This didn’t do much for my faith in “thought leaders”. It looked to me that the “leadership” was all about going straight back to the original problem, and expressing it differently, if equally ineffectually.
Excuse me if I find the fact that thought leaders are revered and sold to the public as quasi-geniuses a bit grim. They’re effectively broad spectrum mentors, another confirmation that the incredibly dumb will buy anything.
To clarify the issues- “Thought leaders” are supposed to be innovators. Members of that overdosed-on-brilliance organization known as the public may wonder, rightly, where all this innovation is, and whether it exists at all except in the hurricanes of largely useless hot air emanating from academia and the various sciences.
If we qualify the value of thought leadership as an actual effect on the public, we get a pretty sad looking drip of results.
These were the prophecies of the past:
We predicted the financial crunch on the Baby Boomers at retirement
We predicted the internet would be big.
We predicted cell phones would be popular.
We predicted the big run on personal media devices.
We predicted lifestyle shifts as technology changed behaviours.
… And if you see clouds, you might think it’s going to rain, too. These predictions were virtual statistical certainties. If you throw enough rocks, you probably will break a window.
They didn’t predict:
Cyber crime
The elevation of organized crime to one of the world’s largest industries
Cyber warfare (not on this scale)
The big run on stealing personal devices
The endless quality issues with cell phones
The deluge of internet porn, raging global paedophilia and the rest of the charm school souvenirs.
In the wider field of human (remember humans? Little furry guys, a bit cave-happy?) activity, “innovation” apparently stops short of criticizing the progressive ossification of America into a failed state, global poverty, chronic corporate mismanagement, crashing food and water resources and any other subject where words would usually be used to form sentences.
Which leaves us with a case to make about the mainstream “thought leadership” of the world.
I was by now wondering if “thought leadership” was just another synonym for “what my publicist wants me to say”. Apparently not, but the alternative is a bit of a mouthful- Particularly for a group of people who apparently never notice when their feet are in their mouths up to the hip.
McKinsey Quarterly is the big name, as in the only one, in “thought leadership”. The material MQ produces makes it a big deal on Facebook, as well as a sort of executive Bible surrogate. (There are other thought leader organizations like Bain, but small beer in comparison.)
Unlike some “thought leaders”, excuse me if I don’t tell you what to think about this material. What I’d ask you to look at is the subject matter and the motifs of the content.
I, for one, start to see why the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation may well have been tearing its hair out at the responses it got from its survey about nursing roles. Big issues? Big breakthroughs?
“Thought leadership” is really just another facile, pattering business mechanism. That may well be why it’s so myopic and incapable of filling the old roles of the real thinkers. “Never mind the exploding volcano, sell more widgets” really doesn’t equal Brave New World, 1984, the biological revolution or anything else.
So, thought leaders- What have you achieved?
Put it this way- Are you in the same league as the real thinkers? If not, why are you called “thought leaders”? Great vocab, it ain’t. It seems that even the expression “thought leader” is a quote (another surprise) from 1994 mainly to refer to the “smartest guy in the room”. Smartest guys in the room include Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, and of course Wall Street, where the rooms are so much smaller. The really good news is that thought leadership is big business in that other chamber pot of intellects, politics. Imagine what “innovation” means in politics.
About all that can be said about thought leadership is that it’s an authentic cultural phenomenon of the early 21st century- Talent is not required, thought is preferably attuned to conventions, however absurd and life is good.
A new expression might make a difference-
Thought equivocators?
Thought vacuums?
Thought of nothing much and made a fortune out of it
A new plant, perhaps- A Think Me Not
I note with some rather desiccated humor that “demand creation” is a key characteristic of thought leadership.
Perhaps creating a demand for people who can actually think might solve the problem?
Bet you didn’t even know there was a problem.
To give the unconvinced some balance and a look at the other side-
Thought Leaders Central, whose motto is Helping Clever People Be Commercially Smart
Leaders Direct from where I got this quaint piece:
Thought leaders could actually have weak interpersonal skills and an indifferent character. They could be loners or eccentrics. All that counts is the credibility of their new idea. This is why we can buy innovations offered by odd creative types who we would not entrust to manage any part of an organization.
So the real thinkers aren’t “trusted”. Their social position is more relevant than “the idea” (Just one? Wow, they really get this thinking stuff, don't they?) and loners and eccentrics are synonymous. (Well, ever hear of a lone sheep?)
Any thoughts?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about thought leaders, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Brave New World, isaac asimov
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