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It’s not easy to do what Mark Roth describes as “leaving the campfire”. By which he means turning your back on the safe feeling you get from being “one of the crowd” and doing what no one else has thought of doing – or has had the guts to do. Worse still, to have people laugh at you because – well, it’s one thing to be a MacArthur genius award winner as Roth is – but his work is still weird by traditional scientific standards.

Roth’s work on immortality or, rather, the biological processes involved in suspended animation, earned him the title of “Mad Scientist” by Esquire magazine when they featured his work at length in 2008. But read that article, or watch Roth’s TED talk and you cannot help be moved by this man’s passion to change the world. And how has he gone about doing that? As the Esquire article points out, “He was going to see where failure took him…to fail again while making good on his promise to create something of immediate benefit to human beings.”

Innovation and Risk

Perhaps you don’t see your work as having such lofty ideals. Perhaps your organization is risk averse and there’s no reward (only recrimination) for sticking your neck out. Maybe you belong to one of those small-to-medium size enterprises whose ambition for innovation has plummeted during these economically testing times? There are certainly plenty of examples of those in Europe, as recent data released by the IMP³rove Academy shows:

  • Between 2010-2013 the percentage of companies opting to take “no risky leaps” increased to 44% (from 35% in the period 2007-2009).
  • In the same period, those “aiming for substantial changes” fell to 41% (from 48%).
  • The number striving for radical innovation in the information and communication technologies sector shrank from 23% in 2007-2009 to 14% in 2010-12.

If you want to change the world, you’ve got to change your thinking first.”

~ The Mad Scientist Bringing Back the Dead…Really, Esquire.

 The Courage of Thought Leadership

Consider the contradiction between those claiming thought leadership while being averse to taking the kinds of risky leaps of imagination that Mark Roth is willing to make. As we point out in Tweet #8 of our award-winning book, #Thought Leadership Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign: “A hallmark of true thought leadership is the confidence to take the route that 99.9 percent of industry experts don’t even see. Will you?”

We’d like to add an additional line after the opening statement (now that we’re not confined to just 140 characters): “As well as the courage to explore avenues of inquiry that many are too risk averse to examine.”

Most of us are fearful of making mistakes, looking foolish, having people laugh at our ideas. But if it hadn’t been for the “crazy” (at the time) insights of Copernicus, Florence Nightingale, and Crick & Watson, we might still believe the sun revolves around the earth, think injuries not sanitation are the biggest causes of death in hospitals, and remain in dark about DNA.

“If everyone thinks something is a good idea, it’s either not a good idea or it used to be one.” ~ Nick Hanauer quoted in Imagination First. 

So how do the likes of Roth move forward into unknown territory, to help change the thinking that changes the world – in big and small ways?

Thought Leadership: Purpose in Action

As Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon explain in their book, Imagination First: Unlocking the Power of Possibility (John Wiley & Sons, 2009):

For Roth…there was no trick for overcoming fear except confronting it, naming it, and then telling people why he did what he did. It was in that telling and retelling that Roth sharpened not only his story but also his sense of what mattered most. Ultimately, he did not obliterate the fear that was stifling his imagination. He simply trumped it with something stronger: a sense of purpose.”

If your business or organization’s growth has stalled from the fear of making a misstep in a challenging market, ask yourself this: What is your purpose? Because only by knowing that will you be brave enough to put forward the potentially controversial or challenging points of view that are typical of true thought leaders. It is this boldness that is the differentiating factor that can make you magnetically attractive to clients and prospects instead of competing on price like everyone else.

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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