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Burt Wonderstone & the Illusion of Thought Leadership

In that one moment young Albert’s whole life changed. A bullied kid with just one friend, he went on to become a superstar on the Las Vegas strip. How? Because for his birthday—according to the script of Steve Carrell’s latest movie vehicle—his mother gave him a magic set sold by TV magician Rance Holloway (played by the indomitable Alan Arkin).

Fast forward three decades when Albert (Carrell), now known as The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, is partnered by his boyhood friend, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). That toy set didn’t magically transform Wonderstone into a magician—he and Marvelton worked at becoming masters for years (10,000 hours, anyone?). They continually filled their notebooks with thoughts about the new magical feats they might perform one day. What propelled their careers was that alchemical potion of passion, dedication, practiced skills mixed with the X factor, natural talent.

The movie is a story of redemption and while many critics panned it, I happened to like it a lot. Not least for the analogy it offers about the essence of true thought leadership.

Because one day there’s a new draw in Vegas—in the form of Jim Carrey’s manic “street magician,” Steve Gray. The audience for Wonderstone’s magic show dwindles, attracted more by Gray’s crazy antics: cutting his face open, holding his urine for days, turning himself into a human piñata that spews candy. As hotel magnate, Doug Munny (the late, lamented James Gandolfini) tells Wonderstone as he cancels his long-running show, “Steve Gray: they are calling him the future of magic.”

Down on his luck and having traded his superstar status for entertaining retired performers in a nursing home, Wonderstone serendipitously meets his boyhood inspiration, Holloway. They go to watch Grey as he is performing yet another outrageous street stunt. The “old-timers” agree: What Grey is doing is not magic.

Not thought leadership either

Scouring Google Alerts for claims of thought leadership (almost always self-proclaimed, by the way), I could say the same. Everyone seems to be jumping on a bandwagon without understanding the original concept and that where it’s going is not what the term was envisioned to mean.

We decided one of the showpieces of strategy+business would be a feature on someone really influential in the world of ideas, whose take on the world was important and whose influence was growing. The first of those was CK Prahalad – a great management thinker, economist and analyst,” he (Joel Kurtzman, the originator of the term “thought leadership”) explains. “For me, a true thought leader has to have some new important ideas that are worth sharing and that have real application. We aren’t talking about academic ideas that might be brilliant but don’t have a direct application. When I think of thought leaders, I think of people who are coming up with creative new insights that can be applied.

~ Joel Kurtzman quoted in Think You’re a Thought Leader? Think Again!

Wonderstone’s fame and fortune may have turned him into an egotistical ass, but there is no doubting his skill at performing magic. The same kind of magic that changed his life as a child the moment he manifested the desire to become an accomplished illusionist. Grey, on the other hand, is just a peddler of “monkey porn.” What he does isn’t skillful…it’s merely attention grabbing. Always looking to exhibit one-upmanship, he doesn’t just walk on hot coals, he goes to sleep on them. Gutsy? Sure. Crazy? You bet. But masterful? I beg to differ.

Thought leadership…but not as we know it

So it is with thought leadership and the diluted nonsense that all-too-frequently passes for it. Nuggets like:

Curate content. People won’t remember that you didn’t author the articles (but they will) by extension credit you with the author’s expertise.” (This courtesy of Fast Company, from a blog post entitled 6 Ways to Go From Anonymous Hermit to Thought Leader.)


Blog about your industry. A well-written blog will give potential clients confidence that your products and services are among the very best…” (From 6 Ways to Gain Credibility as an Industry Thought Leader.)

The implication from these two articles is that if you engage in a few tactics (six seems to be the magic number!), Hey Presto! you are a thought leader. Worse, you can always offer up the apparition of thought leadership by riding the coat tails of others. Or, equally bad, by insinuating that sleight of words alone (your ability to write well), will create a mirage of thought leadership.

THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is the illusion that we are frequently dazzled by…and—like Steve Gray’s assault on the marvels performed by skilled, accomplished magicians—it’s as tasteless and unsatisfying in the long run.

Equating the kind of content and ego-obsessed drivel that is continually being written about as “thought leadership” is like comparing Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to Nelle Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  They both have a purpose. They both entertain and engage different audiences. But I doubt anyone is going to write of Brown’s books as they did in this Vanity Fair article about Harper Lee’s masterpiece (my bolded italics):

In 1991, the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book said it rated behind only the Bible in books that are ‘most often cited as making a difference in people’s lives.’ Laura Bush, when she was First Lady, told USA Today, ‘In a lot of ways, the book changed how people think.’

Just PLEASE don’t let content curation and an assortment of superficial marketing tactics become the future of thought leadership.

What do you think?

Dr. Liz Alexander is co-founder at Leading Thought  and co-author of #Thought Leadership Tweet. As consulting co-author, she collaborates with aspiring authors who desire to write thought leading booksConnect with Liz on LinkedIn. Follow her 140 character musings on Twitter: @LeadThought.

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About Dr. Liz Alexander

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