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Thought Leadership? Says Who?

The email I received from my literary agent yesterday (writes Dr. Liz) sparked mixed emotions. Over the weekend he’d be reading the proposal for my next (15th) nonfiction book, he said, and would send me his comments next week.

Going the traditional publishing route—meaning “gatekeepers”—might seem strange in this age of ebook millionaires (who are rarer than you think) and others who self-publish (the vast majority of whom attract a few dozen readers at best). But this book of mine was far too important to pick myself in terms of self-publishing. I don’t see my agent’s wisdom and guidance—even his potential rejection—as tyranny. I see it as a filter to excellence.

“Picking yourself” and the “tyranny of gatekeeping” were themes running through an oft-cited and shared blog post written by Seth Godin in early 2011; its meaning has always seemed ambiguous to me.

With ambiguity often comes misunderstanding. This definitely seems to be the case when you relate “picking yourself” to thought leadership.

Picking Thought Leaders: Bad!

Joel Kurtzman was the original “gatekeeper” who picked the academics and big organizational thinkers whom he collectively named “thought leaders” in the late 1990s. Since then the rise of self-appointed thought leaders has become like a stampede of wild horses–and just as damaging. We’re close to the point where hearing the term results in more snorts of derision than admiration. You have a new thought? Then you must be a thought leader! You’re banging out content left, right, and center? Thought leadership status is yours to be claimed.

This form of picking yourself is the antithesis of thought leadership.

But there’s another way to look at this.

Picking Thought Leaders: Good!

When I spoke with executives of the UK’s Egremont Group for our How Thought Leadership Works audio series, what was refreshing was their humility—and desire to be of service. They had become interested in the world of 2020 and the changes that might present their target audience—human resources professionals—with major headaches if they didn’t anticipate and get ready for those seismic shifts in the world of work.

After conducting online research to discover what was already being said on the topic of “head office of the future,” Egremont found that while there was some information out there already, no one appeared to have joined the dots. There was no coherent model of what HR needed to think about today in order to prepare themselves for the head office of the future. Egremont rose to that challenge.

You can find out more about this case study in our audio series. Suffice it to say that Egremont road-tested their hypothesis with several progressive clients to check that what they were doing was of value to them. They then partnered with the UK’s leading HR publication to distribute a survey and publish the results. At no point did Egremont claim thought leadership—but they did pick themselves in the sense of actually doing something, not just creating content.

The result was that they in turn were picked by clients and prospects who recognized Egremont’s credible, tangible contribution to an issue of mutual interest and importance—organization design.

Better Thought Leadership

As Godin writes at the close of the aforementioned blog post: “No one is going to pick you. Pick yourself.”

But if you truly believe “no one is going to pick you,” then in the ego-driven sense:

You’re saying the wrong thing…
Probably to the wrong audience…
Which isn’t changing anything…
Least of all how people think…
So what you are doing isn’t making a difference in people’s lives.

How does that make you a thought leader?

On the other hand, by picking yourself and taking action on something about which you are passionate:

You’re engaging with an issue no one else has taken on…
Checking its veracity with the right audience…
Making small but powerful incremental changes…
That influence how you and others think about this issue…
Which has the potential to make a difference in people’s lives.

And in that sense, you are truly Leading Thought.

What do you think?

Are you looking for practical insights from real life examples of thought leadership that works?  Then click here for our in-depth, eight-part audio series featuring five global case studies so you know what to do and what not to do on your path to becoming a recognized thought leader in your own right. 

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