3 Reasons YOU Are Not A Thought Leader

A while back I wrote a blog called The Age of Thought Leadership. Sometimes, to define something, it helps to define what it is NOT, so I thought I’d have a little fun. I hope you take it in the spirit in which is was intended.

Hey you! Stop calling yourself a thought leader. For that matter,  you can stop with “expert” and “guru” and anything else that comes up in your thesaurus.

I admit I am somewhat addicted to so-called social media: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs.  I am, by nature, gregarious and these are great tools for interacting with other people. As with every other communication medium, it wasn’t long before savvy/unscrupulous individuals co-opted it in the name of the almighty dollar. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for profit and free enterprise. But if I see one more profile or blog where someone calls himself a thought leader I’m gonna puke.

By what process are leaders selected? They’re certainly NOT self-selected. It falls to US to designate YOU a thought leader/expert/guru – please don’t do it yourself. After all, real leaders don’t look for followers, they just do what they do and people follow.

Dating Sites Without Pictures

Thought leadership on the web seems to be more like a dating site without pictures: 6’, athletic build, loves long walks on the beach. Yeah, right. Sadly, people tend to believe things they see in writing. That said, when you write something on the web that’s hard to vet, and you call yourself a thought leader, I’m gonna have to say “prove it.”

In science, when you publish an article it’s subjected to peer review. They call it intersubjective testability.  It was laid out by Herbert Feigl as follows:

“The quest for scientific knowledge is regulated by certain standards or criteria … the most important of these regulative ideals [is] intersubjective testability… What is here involved is … the requirement that the knowledge claims of science be in principle capable of test on the part of any person properly equipped with intelligence and the technical devices of observation and experimentation.”

Ideally, we should be able to  substitute “content providers” for “science”  and demand of our content providers some intersubjective testability. Unfortunately, that’s not the case today.

Caveat Emptor

“Let the buyer beware” has never been more relevant. As consumers, we are (somewhat) protected by the FTC against false claims by advertisers. Publishers, in turn, are protected by the First Amendment. However, the Internet is a Wild West of unregulated and unvetted content. Some of it is selflessly expository, some of it is naively exuberant, but more and more of it is consciously self-serving.

It’s too easy to game the system. You’ve got all these people talking about what great leaders they are and buffing their resumes. Who’s vetting blogs for quality, authority, plagiarism? How do you separate the real ones from poseurs?

As Fred McClimans recently wrote in Are We Outsourcing Common Sense to the Internet?:

…in a world where we are all “publishers” and sources of information, not all information has the same value or trustworthiness.

How people judge thought leaders should be how we judge all leaders, from Presidents down to the local school board members or your next vendor. Do some research. Compare and contrast. Are there any references to back up claims? Real data?

How about on the web? On blogs? How can we apply intersubjective testability? Some common sense. Are they delivering value or a sales pitch? Are there comments on the blog? Are there negative comments on the blog? Are they responded to in a civil fashion?

Bottom Line: Apply Some (Not So) Common Sense

In the end, we can’t change other people. We can only change ourselves. A bit zen, yes, but I’m being practical. We need to learn to apply some sense to the content we consume. I’ve indoctrinated my kids: when I say “what’s a commercial for?” they reply “they’re trying to sell you something.” It’s a start. How about you? Can you inject more integrity into your content? Can you apply some intersubjective testability to your consumption of content?

If you ARE producing content on the web, or anywhere else, please make sure that none of these apply to you:

  1. if you call yourself a thought leader, you aren’t;
  2. if you’re not transparent and we can’t validate your data, you aren’t a thought leader;
  3. if your goal of blogging is blatantly to promote yourself or your product, you’re not a thought leader.

So, I haven’t puked since I was, like, twelve. I really don’t want to start now. A little help, please?

  • Hi Alan,

    Entertaining post and I agree. A real title is something bestowed on you by others, whether its charlatan or guru. If that peer or crowd-based title doesn’t match your own perception then its time for a little self-truth and possibly some enlightenment.

    Take my handle for example, Jeff the Sensei. A bit guru-ish? Yup. But a title that was given to me by my customers and peers. It also happens to be the name of my company so that helps. I have worked very hard to earn that title from them, not for the intent of having them perceive me in that light, but for them to see the value in my advice, the integrity of my promises, and the follow through of my actions – delivered, I hope, in a modest, approachable wrapper.

    Saw you were hooked up on Linked In with Fred McClimans and actually have a Fred quote in your post so you had to be a quality guy!


    Jeff – Sensei

  • Thanks, Jeff.

    You get the gist. It was a bit tongue-in-cheek. It’s not about the title. I use thought leadership as a metaphor of sorts for transparency. If you have to tell people how good you are, you’re probably not that good. Show them. Or, better yet, give them enough information to figure it out for themselves.


  • Alan – With tongue in cheek, you’ve nailed it. Your three points are probably the most basic test that we should all be asking ourselves in our business, online and even personal lives.

    It’s ironic that the process of common sense peer-review has become more and more difficult as we move into an environment where the traditional six degrees of separation (hich Frigyes Karinthy first postulated back in 1929!) are slowly being decremented. Yes, society and social networks have certainly brought us all together, but with it has come an unintended kicker: anonymity – something that many take advantage of in the worst of all possible ways.

    A great subject, and a great post. Thx – Fred

  • I agree, Fred. Ironically, we have more ways to communicate than at any time in our history and yet understanding still eludes us. Anonymity is an unintended consequence and a double-edged sword. There’s a topic for another blog.


  • Jason

    In marketing it’s often said that the expert in the room is the person that stands up and says “I’m the expert in the room.”. Unfortunately, due dilligence is too time consuming for the average American. It takes far too long to figure out who is right, who is wrong and who can truly be trusted, so people just trust what they read. I state this as absolute fact as the foremost expert on why people do dumb stuff.

    All kidding aside, wannabe thought leaders, gurus and experts are a dime a dozen and the internet has given them a soap box to stand on and a voice that can be heard all over the world from their mother’s basement.

    – Jason

  • I sooooo agree with you, Alan. I thought you might enjoy a related post caused by a similar visceral reaction I had to the process of self-annointing. http://asklindasherman.com/new-facebook-groups-how-to-protect-yourself

    By the way, if you haven’t puked since you were 12, congratulations on properly monitoring your alcohol intake.

    • Thanks, Linda. I actually wrote a draft of this a while back but was inspired by Fred McCliman’s post to finally publish it.

      As for the puke thing, if a bout of food poising on my honeymoon didn’t do it, nothing will.


  • Great point, Jason. “Due diligence.”

    Where the’s a lack of information to corroborate claims, people tend to believe the person screaming the loudest.


  • A truly great post Alan!

    I found it interesting who you stated was a technology “thought leader” amongst your family in the previous “Invisable Thought Leader” post. ;-)

    Have a great night!


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  • Good post, but we’ve been fighting that good fight for roughly 5 years now…we’ve gained ohhhh about an inch…:)

  • Good post, but we’ve been fighting that good fight for roughly 5 years now…we’ve gained ohhhh about an inch…:)

    • Thanks, Marc. Agree. But even THAT’s progress. :)