Could You Be a Thought Leader?

From the Change Thinking Blog
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Categories: Thought Leadership


In my last post, I wrote about the archetypes of Eager Apprentices, Solid Performers, Periodic Contributors, Adept Adventurers, and Thought Leaders. I discussed the critical role each plays and introduced the Thought Leader as one who has a central role in helping our profession realize its who we are potential. In this post, I will address more specifics related to what it takes to be a Thought Leader dedicated to exploring and leveraging how we show up as part of the value we create for clients.

True Thought Leaders Are Rare

We can’t all function as Solid Performers or Adept Adventurers, nor can we all operate as Thought Leaders—and that is a good thing. Our professional community needs to reflect the full range of roles to properly serve clients and advance the craft.

My intent in writing this series isn’t to convince everyone to pursue being a Thought Leader; it is to call out those with this predisposition and ask that you come forward and become more visibly engaged. Thought Leaders spend considerable time and energy pondering new observations and sharing their perspectives in coaching/mentoring relationships, speeches, writings, etc. If there were too many active at this level there wouldn’t be enough practitioners left to benefit from all their wisdom.

There are change facilitators in our ranks who have not yet gravitated to Thought Leader status (but will), and some who are not cut out for it but still serve their clients and help mature our profession in their own way. This is a designation that, by definition, will always represent a small portion of those in our field. I personally know only a few senior practitioners whom I view as Thought Leaders who attend to who we are issues specifically within the change execution profession. Among them are Linda and Dean Anderson, and Mel Toomey. I’m not suggesting these are the only ones out there—they are just practitioners of this nature with whom I’m most familiar.

There are plenty of contributors to who we are perspectives in related fields (counseling, coaching, education, and even our closest relative, organizational development) that change agents have borrowed from over the years. However, Thought Leaders who have broken new who we are ground specifically intended for organizational change practitioners are rare, and that is the point of this blog series.

Why are there so few? First, there aren’t many Thought Leaders in general, much less those attending to who we are issues. Not everyone has the foundational elements needed for such a role. But, beyond the basic prerequisites is the weight of the role itself. The demands are high and call for a commitment to both client work and the present and future of our profession. Thought Leaders’ laboratories are the organizations in which they practice their craft, whether as internal agents or external consultants. As such, every day, they must focus on the changes they are assigned to support, while also remaining vigilant for any new observation, emerging pattern, or insight that could help further the profession’s growth.

These are the requirements of any Thought Leader. The focus for this writing, however, is the need for more pioneers in the who we are space, so let’s take a closer look at some of the unique features of those who push the envelope regarding this aspect of practicing our craft.

  • Thought Leaders who pursue how our inner nature impacts client effectiveness are stretching the frontiers of where our hearts intersect with our heads. At those outer limits, their perspectives can sometimes be fascinating and motivating, but other times, they can make us feel uncomfortable and threatened. Their intent isn’t to unnerve us for its own sake, but to disrupt our “status-quo” thinking about the role our character and presence plays in our work. By their standards, if the practitioners who follow them aren’t periodically challenged by what they have to say, they shouldn’t be viewed as cutting-edge thinkers. As they see it, their role calls for them to uncover unfamiliar concerns, probe into subjects that are typically avoided, and encourage new views by questioning established assumptions.
  • Even when they periodically achieve a degree of alignment between their character and presence, Thought Leaders don’t believe they have garnered all the wisdom about who they are that will be called for in the future. For this reason, they tend to approach most situations with a beginner’s mind, bringing to bear all they have learned while remaining open to totally new insights and understanding.
  • Thought leadership is not a title one can bestow upon oneself; it is a recognition granted by one’s peers. As such, it is not the result of a singular breakthrough, but rather is achieved over time. In respect to what he did (not who he was), consider Steve Jobs. At the outset of his career, he was seen as a creative thinker, but not a Thought Leader. (In those days, he was more of a cross between Adaptive Adventurer and Periodic Contributor.) It took many years, some highly visible failures, and the successful introduction of not only many new products but the formulation of entire new markets before he was bestowed the title of Thought Leader.
  • Who we are Thought Leaders surface slowly, usually after many years of honing their knowledge base and skills, and through introspective exploration. But they used this time to share generously their experiences, insights, and lessons learned, instead of just becoming proficient in the craft.
  • Thought leadership is about advancing the profession, not just one’s self or firm. As such, Thought Leaders offer their time and wisdom to all who care to take it in. Despite the often high-pressure demands from their clients, they dedicate themselves to keeping a watchful eye for new implications, documenting their observations, thinking through possibilities that go beyond the client situation, and sharing the results with others in the professional community. They also make these contributions to advancements in the field knowing that much of what they make available broadly will be applied later without attribution back to them.  
  • By definition, thought leadership is not stagnant. The dynamic pace of the world around us demands continuing experimentation, innovation, and growth. There are those who come up with that one “great new idea” that makes a difference, and then step back to bask in the glory of the recognition that it earns them. This is not the pattern for true pioneers in the who we are space of change execution. Thought Leaders in this space are usually long-term players who measure their tenure in the field in decades, not years. Throughout these long runs, they are consistently prolific in their contributions to and guidance of practitioners interested in incorporating who we are aspects into how they practice the craft.
  • Because thought leadership is granted from the outside, it can only be earned if the insights and understanding results are made broadly available. If they are kept under wraps, only to be shared with those who pay the price of admission, they will never gain the required recognition. Thought Leaders do not just share their learning about character and presence with their coworkers and collaborators, they make them available to competitors as well.

This doesn’t make sense in the classic, win-lose business model mindset, where intellectual property is protected from rival access. Thought Leaders, however, carry two responsibilities: one is centered on their own practice or business and one is focused on advancing the profession. Balancing these influences can present conflicting priorities, but generally speaking, Thought Leaders disseminate what they learn openly and broadly.

They do so because, in most cases, they don’t think in terms of zero sum situations. They believe that it is good for their own proprietary interest for the overall profession to raise its game.

-   Thought Leaders are dedicated to transferring capability. It is fulfilling for them to see recipients of their work (clients, colleagues, and competitors) not only apply what was shared but take it to a level beyond what the Thought Leader envisioned. When this happens, not only does the professional community benefit, but the Thought Leader profits by becoming a recipient of the learning received back from his or her former student and is freed to address more sophisticated who we are challenges.

-   Finally, serving as a Thought Leader demands both vulnerability and self-confidence. It involves a consistent commitment to experimentation that is fueled by new insights, understandings, and the questions they raise. The gains that are enjoyed are punctuated by plenty of mistakes—some small, some major—and learning from them. In this way, thought leadership is not for the meek or the grandiose.

-   While there is acceptance of the accountability that comes with others being influenced by their perspectives, Thought Leaders are also humbled by the responsibility that comes with that label and never takes it for granted. They know that the designation people have conferred on them must be re-earned every day.

Some environments nurture thought leadership, while others stifle it. In the last post of this series, I will address what is required to cultivate thought leadership.

Posted on: September 03, 2013 08:47 PM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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In my experience those who have the predisposition to be Thought Leaders end up doing this whether they seek to or not, and often don't even realise it!

My first experience of this was many years ago when I was working in the news & periodical distribution industry. There was a meeting of the major independents in the industry to thrash out how we could collaborate and strengthen our position against the two major chains of distributors, and the meeting was started by the Charirman of the largest of us passing round a two-pager that "defined the fundamentals of our industry and how we work best", which was generally acclaimed to be not only a comprehensive view and strategy for us and apparently had been doing the rounds of the C-levels for some time. I was very surprised as I recognised it - it was word for word the document I'd written two years previously to help a new senior manager get up to speed in the company, ad was being accepted accepted by this group of C-levels and owners most of whom had been in the industry as family firms for several generations (as against my 4-5 years). From what i hear this is still considered a foundation document and in use close to two decades later.

The moral? Quality and predisposition to thought leadership will emerge - the only quetsion is how we use this.

Thought leaders not only have big ideas big ideas, but also have a plan to put it in action. They have clarity, conviction and consistency in their ideas to convince their audience to generate growth beyond their usual capabilities.
Thank you Daryl for an informative article.

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