“[S]ome of the marquee names in thought leadership are distinguished by their facile thinking and transparent servility to the wealthy.” — David Sessions
The term “thought leader” is one of those phrases that’s become popular despite its meaning being unclear. You are a leader of thoughts? What thoughts? How so? Are you an expert in all (any?) fields, or just in the art of thinking?
Yet, I must admit I sometimes find it handy as a shorthand when giving the elevator pitch for this blog and the SmartBrief on Leadership newsletter. After all, we’re summarizing, linking to and writing about advice on how to lead, implying that there’s some thinking to be done about it and these are the experts.
Not everyone is fond of the term, however. A couple notable attacks of its highest-profile practitioners have come in the past year, as noted by CB Insights CEO Anand Sanwal, (whose newsletter is also pretty good):
- “The Rise of the Thought Leader,” by David Sessions in The New Republic
- “The Intellectual Yet Idiot,” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Those articles touch on larger and more diverse themes than strictly business or corporate leadership. But they make a point.
Maybe I should be clearer: SmartBrief on Leadership is not about thought leadership, if by that you mean pontification, simple yet dazzling solutions, that habits are easy to form or change, that people will eagerly await your feedback, or some belief that doing or communicating something a few times lasts forever.
We’re not pretending that the work of work, of managing people, of interacting with people, is anything but a lifelong struggle.
I’ve written about this before, how you can’t expect to read a book or an email and change everything about yourself. Leadership is about building and acting with character; it’s about communication, observation and empathy, none of which is developed quickly or innately.
You can learn how to walk, how to use a fork, how to drive a car or how to speak Spanish, and while there may be room to improve, you can reach a level where you say, “I’m proficient. I’ve done what I need to.”
Leadership is not that. Can you imagine a CEO saying, “You know what, I know how to communicate with people. I never need to work on that again.” Or, “I know everything these is to know about strategy.” There is always something more for us humans to work on, especially when we’re talking about dealing with other people.
Similarly, your team, your peers and your company will never be static. Some of this is good — new opportunities, growth, new ideas or technologies. Some of it isn’t — business setbacks, regulatory challenges, competition, customer switching. And, of course, people have lives outside of work. They may face illness, depression, family and financial problems. They may leave you for whatever reason. They may become bored or disgruntled or disenchanted.
Let’s take myself as an example: I manage a team of full-timers, and also some freelancers. I am tremendously mediocre at it, whether in coaching or listening or giving feedback. I have a deep knowledge of our systems and norms here at SmartBrief; I can do so much better at sharing my knowledge and passing it on so I can free myself for other challenges. I’m an OK writer who gets reasonably good feedback when I do write, yet I haven’t written anything for this blog in nearly two months. My true speciality is copy editing, yet I’m constantly finding little things I’ve forgotten about or forms of writing that I’m no longer well-versed in. I have lots of ideas but take on far too many responsibilities, and so I leave a lot on the table.
All of that doesn’t mean I’m a failure or that I’m a poor performer (I’m not that humble). But it does mean I have an endless need to learn, improve, test myself and try new things. And if I do, you probably do, too.
To that end, when you read about leadership or management advice, think about how it might help today or tomorrow. Think about how you might apply it over the long term to your approach, your habits, your philosophy. Don’t expect the world to change overnight. And alarms should go off in your head if you meet anyone who promises a quick fix.
James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneurs, manufacturers and other fields. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.