The Problem with Thought Leadership

Figure standing in front of a large glowing passage shaped like a light bulb.
Image by ESB Professional via Shutterstock

Thought Leadership. Here we go again.

Many in leadership roles at businesses, non-profits or entrepreneurial spaces are at some point confronted with this term. It’s a loaded one and it sounds incredibly important. In meetings it rolls off the tongue so smoothly it often keeps on rolling across the conference table until everyone has put it in their mouth and rolled it off their own tongue just to get a sweet sweet taste of it. Lots of things have been said and written about its importance.

Thought leadership has something to do with being great, being the go-to expert, the individual or organization that wrote the book on X. To be a thought leader is to really know your way around Y. You’re the pundit to call on when talking about Z.

Here’s the Forbes definition that’s been floating around since 2012:

“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.”

And the second part of it, from that same article.

“A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.”

Look. This has been said before, but I’ll say it again. Stop it. Enough with thought leadership.

Thought leadership is not a real thing. We can’t aspire to it because it isn’t real. You will never be a thought leader on anything, nor will your organization. Sure, you can stroll around a stage holding a clicker and a mic. You can write an op-ed on Medium that says something provocative and pithy, attempting to be unique (irony, y’all). You can even launch a real compelling podcast or video series, touting your expertise. Just don’t do any of it with thought leadership as the objective. None of those things will make you a thought leader.


Because it’s 2020 and you can’t be one because it’s a made-up marketing term. I know this because I work in marketing and I’m the one who made it up. Just kidding about the last part. I do work in marketing though, and thought leadership has taken up far more conversations than I can stomach.

I’m going to use a different pairing of words with far more value than “thought leadership”: Simple truths.

One simple truth is that fewer and fewer people want to have their thoughts led, particularly by other people. We’re moving away from singular hero worship and ideas that individuals are experts. We live in a time when the fallibility of humans is more visible than ever. This has been true for a few years now.

Articles like this, and this and this have been cropping up and they are rooted in three simple truths about the current state of the world. Trust is waning. Information is everywhere. Singular voices don’t matter.

If you seek to influence, don’t expect to do it as a thought leader. That’s played out. Almost as played out as saying “played out.” Those simple truths stated are gradually putting the kibosh on thought leadership as a viable goal. Forget it.

So what instead? How do we influence? How do we make our impact? By respecting those simple truths. Build trust. Bring forth information that’s not everywhere. Be a chorus.

Build trust

Can I talk about my boss for a moment?

Carmita Semaan grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Raised by her single mom, Wanda, and a village of family and friends who saw her brilliance and potential, Carmita grew into a successful leader in corporate America.

Realizing her success was no accident and that millions of other little kids of color in America have that potential and would flourish if seen and supported just as much as she was, Carmita made a hard pivot out of the corporate world and into education. She stepped into a leadership role at Chicago Public Schools. Here Carmita saw a space that needed more people who came from places like she did, leaders who understood and related to the day-to-day challenges and day-to-day brilliance of the black and brown kids in Chicago’s schools. Again, the theme of people of color being truly seen cropped up.

Carmita Semaan speaking in a fireside chat setting.
Carmita Semaan frequently speaks about her personal story and why she launched the Surge Institute. (Photo by Chris Ballezza for the Surge Institute)

Carmita decided to start a non-profit with the central goal of elevating transformative leaders to the decision making tables so that change could happen for our kids in communities.

Five years after launching the Surge Institute, Carmita is leading a growing team across multiple cities in America, a national nonprofit that now impacts more than 2.25 million students through its development and unification of leaders of color.

Carmita is asked to speak at events, share her story and guide others in how to launch a nonprofit, how to find your purpose and how to woo investors to support your work. She has been interviewed by Forbes (you know, the ones who defined thought leadership).

In these areas, Carmita has grown into what some would consider a thought leader, especially by many of her peers in the non-profit, social justice and leadership development spaces.

Out of all she’s accomplished, what did Carmita never set out to be? A thought leader.

Because you shouldn’t.

We often presume that because we work in a particular field or are really really really super into something, we should definitely be extending our voices on it and people should definitely care to hear what we have to say about it. But no one starts out wanting to hear from you. You must build credibility and trust by doing the work.

The truth is, most of us are not experts on most of the things we love. And plenty of us are not good enough at our jobs to consider ourselves guiding voices in our fields. Get good at your job, live out your journey and explore where your real passion and talents lie. It’s better and less stressful than desperately throwing everything at the wall and watching everything slide pathetically down to the floor.

Everyone wants to be called an expert. Not everyone has earned that adjective. Earn it.

Bring forth information that’s not everywhere

Let’s say I want to become a respected voice, possibly seek monetary gain for my knowledge and expertise. The thing is I’m not an entrepreneur or a public figure of any kind. In fact, I work at McDonald’s, and not as a manager. I just work there.

Tough place to start, right? Perhaps.

Could I generate a following and interest in my voice by shouting from the mountaintops that I know how to make McDonald’s burgers in my very own home? Probably not. Why? Because you can Google that in 4 seconds on your phone and find 50 websites with the same information.

Now, what if I took the time to learn, grow and actually innovate? What if I took the time to get really dope at fixing that ice cream machine? It’s a well-documented truth the ice cream machines at McDonald’s stay busted. Well not at my McDonald’s. I’ve innovated (maybe snuck into a Dairy Queen) and developed a long-term solution. Now my knowledge has value. I’m credible because I’ve made a name for myself strictly by being good at what I do, and the knowledge has value because I’ve made myself the answer to one of the biggest questions plaguing the national zeitgeist: “Why’s the McDonald’s ice cream machine never work?”

Meme image poking fun at the McDonald’s ice cream machine rarely working.
Image via Reddit

Now I can write that piece or make that video: “How I solved the McDonald’s Ice Cream Machine Crisis.” That’s a shareable, credible piece that elevates you not just as a good McDonald’s employee but as an innovator. A hero even. A national treasure.

It’s a silly example, but consider what doing the actual work of innovating and challenging norms does for the larger conversation. It provides a new wrinkle in the cloth. And that’s what turns all of our heads. That’s what makes us want to listen in the first place.

Doesn’t have to be that profound. Just has to be credible and a genuinely worthwhile entry to the ongoing conversation.

Be a chorus

In continuing my silly ice cream machine example. There are limitations to being the hero of the day. We no longer live in a 15-minutes-of-fame reality. It’s more like nine seconds. Six if I want to squeeze in a Vine reference. You might get to do a TED talk about your ice cream machine story and that might live on in classrooms and boardrooms for a while, but will you? Will people keep checking for you beyond that initial splash? Probably not.

That’s why we need to let go of the self-elevation part of this. We can’t be thought leaders because being a thought leader implies you are what people are connecting with. In reality it is the content, innovation, vision you’ve produced that people are interested in. Focus on your work rather than the you of it all, and the champions of that work will keep it moving forward.

Those who buy into the work and vision are just as much a part of the thought leadership that is happening as the originator, because they carry the message forward far beyond the original voice. I’m not just talking about the ones who retweet your op-ed. I’m talking about the ones who argue against it. Even the ones who copy it and modify it. Even the ones who steal it.

A researcher could do a mountain of work and come to a groundbreaking theory that changes the way we look at Alzheimers. Does the public release of that theory make the researcher a thought leader? Not necessarily. In fact, probably not. Another researcher coming along with an opposing viewpoint, calling BS on that theory, is valuable to the elevation of the theory. Similarly, researchers who try to replicate that work, testing it and adding layers to it, elevate the theory. Underhanded researchers who plagiarize or steal from the work to elevate themselves also elevate the theory. What that original researcher must accept is that his theory may answer questions, raise new ones, influence thought, save lives and even change the world while his name or story may never be known by more than a few people.

But he still led a thought. He provoked the conversation, because he was… provocative. Go figure. And that provokation invoked a sea of responses that elevated the thought.

The chorus has the power, not the individual.

Do the work

I don’t hate thought leadership. Not really. I just think it’s dumb to seek to be known as an expert without actually being one or adding anything meaningful to the conversation.

The work is where it’s at.

We need to shut our big mouths for a few minutes and work. The irony of me writing over 1,800 words on this is not lost on me, but still… thought leadership is not a goal. Creating change, pushing progress, making the world better… those are goals.

Let’s stop wanting to look smart. Let’s start being smart.

Enough with thought leadership. Onward with actual leadership.

With your permission I’ll leave you with a modern classic.



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Chris Paicely

Chris Paicely

Storyteller. Believer. Partner. Father. Son. Digital Creator. Marketing Strategist for the Surge Institute. Founder of StoryPaced Media.