Are You Resting On Your Thought Leader Laurels?

Are You Resting On Your Thought Leader Laurels?

It seems like everyone wants to be a thought leader these days. All sorts of people are cropping up with posts of deep, meaningful wisdom or challenging views on their blogs, profound personal philosophies delivered with grave sincerity of a Hindu guru scattered across the internet.

Forgive me if I seem a little jaded, but I think this thought leader business is getting a little out of hand.

It’s great that blogs let people voice opinions and share them with others, but I think bloggers could use a good dose come-back-down-to-earth with a dash of humble tossed in. Posting opinions just make us people with opinions. Not thought leaders.

Now, opinions are good. I believe we should all have them, and we should voice them (nicely). Hearing the opinions of others can be beneficial, and it’s often inspiring to read something written by a person full of passion for his or her beliefs.

We pay attention to these people, too. We like authority and people who have conviction, who stand up and speak their mind with confidence. We read, we listen, we compare these opinions against our own, and we contemplate because of them.

Do we do anything about them? Does the person voicing all this great wisdom do anything? Being a person who gets attention for opinions doesn’t make anyone a thought leader. At least, not in my opinion, no pun intended.

When you state a good opinion on your blog, everyone nods, comments, shares, and discusses. They spread the news around the blogosphere. Well done. People like what you’ve said. But nothing’s really happened yet. Only half the equation’s been fulfilled. It’s all talk and no action.

Now there’s a thought: action. What happened to that? A lot of the wannabe thought leaders out there impart plenty of smart ideas – but where’s the revolution? Is anything changing because of these great thoughts?

Well, no, not really. It’s more like ego games than game-changing.

See, here’s the thing: leaders lead – they bring people places. If a leader isn’t walking the talk, literally, and taking the audience from the auditorium to Olympus… well, that’s not leading at all. That’s standing in the spotlight while delivering a monologue. The crowd goes home and says, “Heard a great speech today. You should’ve been there. Pass the ketchup, please.”

And life goes on.

I know it can be a heady feeling to have people listen to you and tell you that you have great thoughts. But if all you can do is sit on your throne slinging opinions about, you aren’t a thought leader. If you want to be a thought leader, have thoughts, absolutely – but lead with them.

Show us places others haven’t gone before. Bring us with you. Stir our spirits and get us moving from where we are now to where you want us to be. Innovate ideas that make our lives better. Create impact, cause reactions and make something happen with your ideas. Don’t just sit there telling us what we should do if you’re not doing it yourself.

It takes guts to walk the talk, I know. It’s easier to just sit back on the laurels of blogging and post stuff that sounds smart. It’s not so easy to influence people and provoke society to evolve and change. To create insight people can actually put into action? It takes hard work and conviction. It takes courage and dedication and fortitude. It takes strength. Integrity. Purpose.

And it takes more than a handful of laurels to sit on.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. I agree James.

    What actually matters is taking action. If your visitors and readers are not taking any action on what you say, then that is not leadership. Your post will definitely help me take action on this and I think others will agree. You are a good thought leader!


  2. As the saying goes, “opinions are like assholes–everyone has one and they all stink.”

    I am certainly more than happy to share my opinion on just about anything, but people who think having an opinion makes them a thought leader? Or go as far as calling themselves a thought leader in their bio? Yuck.

    I saw someone tweet the other day, “If you have to tell people you’re a thought leader, you’re not one.”

    Who came up with this terrible buzz-word anyway?

  3. I’m with Joel – the term Thought Leader is actually a really stupid one. And James, while I definitely agree with you – it’s an ego thing, and everyone and their Grandma is doing it – it’s also two other things:

    1. You have to start somewhere, and
    2. It’s mostly the “true” leaders that will rise up.

    I’m a firm believer that even with more and more bloggers cropping up, only the best will rise to the top. So plenty of them can spew their opinions (I know I do), but only the ones who actually provide value/humor/different insights/action will actually become known as a – *shudder* – Thought Leader.

    So yeah, I love this post and I agree with you, but I also think that people are smarter and can smell a fake leader from a mile away.

  4. Kuldip Singh says:

    A wise person once said ” If you want to change the world,change yourself”. Maybe,folks like me,who post their viewpoints,do not want to become Thought Leaders.We just want food for thought.
    I just saw Crises of Capital Animated by David Harvey.Hat tip to Marcus Barber,whose blog pointed this out to me.The comment that somebody posted,gave a different view point,for which I felt enriched, though I do agree with the comment.
    Difficult to paint with a broad brush.
    Kuldip Singh

  5. Hi James,

    Interesting take on this topic. Being a thought leader is a corporate PR thing from at least thirteen years ago. The medium-size company I worked for at the time was encouraged to be one. More of a ploy to sell products than change the world in any way. To avoid the hypocrisy, whatever a person’s talk is, they should also be walking it or learning to walk it. Most of us teach what we needed or still need to learn ourselves.

    In my case, I was walking my it and then decided to be talking it too.

    I agree with Marian. You have to start somewhere and that’s o.k. We definitely need some new thoughts on all sorts of things. Much of what’s passing for new thought is old thought rehashed. The economy is a perfect example. Spending lots of money to revive jobs that have passed their prime makes little sense in anything but the ultra short run. what do we really need?

    Thx. G.

  6. Actions speak louder than words… Thoughts are cheap but action has a price for being bold, a price that most folks don’t want to pay. A true leadership thought is one that teaches by example and creates the Tom Sawyer effect…”Hey! Let me try that!”

  7. I’m not going to lie. I DO want to be recognized as a leader, but as a leader of action. Buzz words do make me cringe, but I realize that they all start off in the right place. Someone was doing something great and someone else decided to give them a title.

    I would cringe if I heard my name mentioned with some type of buzz word, However, I would probably do it with a little bit of a smile because in some weird way it’s kind of what we’re all sort of striving for.

    Am I wrong?

  8. @Nabeel – Ha, thanks very much! I don’t consider myself a thought leader, though. Straight-shooter rebel? Yes. I like that one. Let’s go with that.

    @Joel – Crude, but accurate. All the way.

    @Marian – I agree that the true leaders will rise up. In my experience, in all cases they are people who are quietly humble about their leadership position – they just DO IT and they don’t sit there telling people they’re leaders. I think by forging ahead on their own, people naturally follow.

    @Kuldip – I am big, big, big on discussion and sharing thoughts with other people. I have my own beliefs, but with one of my values being “open minded”, I feel that discussion with others on their beliefs and being ready to accept some are better than mind is important. Discussion is important. Ego at the ability to monologue, less so.

    @Giuletta – Yes, I feel that “thought leader” is being used today as a “follow me and buy my stuff!” ploy. Getting kind of tired of it. 🙂

    @Sue – Absolutely, what people say and what they do are two different things. We have to examine both before deciding whether the person is walking the talk or not.

    @Andy – A good buzz word born in our honour is always awesome. I wouldn’t cringe if someone slapped one on me – but by god, it best be one that shows I uphold my own values!

  9. I agree with Marian & Joel above – I always thought the term “thought leader” was stupid. What exactly does that mean, anyway? To lead someone’s thoughts implies a propagandist, IMHO, and can be dangerous, as history can attest.

    Personally, I’d rather see fewer people shouting from their soapboxes and more actually building a soapbox car, but until then, I’ve simply turned a blind eye to the B.S.


  10. There’s been terabytes of virtual ink spilled over what leadership is just in the past year, nevermind historically. But yes, this is a much-needed wake up call. I wonder if sometimes the public consciousness decides to take a random word for the quarter and devalue it.

  11. Interesting post. I’d like to know what motivated you to write this one. I haven’t had time to do much reading, but you’re right, there is more action needed.

    As Ayn Rand says, thought divorced from action is useless.

  12. Nicely snarky but to the point post 🙂

    I agree there are too many “social media gurus” out there who think “I blog/tweet, therefore I am”.

    Had to think about that to wonder if I, as a frequent “thought” blogger / tweeter, fall into that category.

    I hope not. In addition to blogging etc, I’m a management consultant who comes from many years of actual experience leading businesses of many types and sizes, and I feel I’m “hard wired” to get results. Heck, this year alone I’ve “fired” two clients who were just using me to have someone to talk to, but wouldn’t take action to improve their business. Drove me nuts.

    Now, does that mean I think you should just walk in the door, tell ’em your genius thoughts and move straight to “taking action” ?

    No. My real world experience with real businesses (something that, I fear, far too many blog/twitter “thought leaders” actually have very little of) has led me to conclude that the best way to add value to clients is first to help them with their thoughts, and then to help them take action.. in that order.

    Yesterday I went on a blog writing binge (an inspired Sunday), and one I banked to release later centred around the phrase “Clarity must come before action”.

    Far too many businesses are lacking clarity on their goals, objectives, strategies, actions. If you can first help them think through those areas to gain clarity, and can then “walk the talk” and use that clarity to drive action… that’s my method, and I think it works.

    Would love to hear what others who actually work at the “coal face” with real world clients think (pajama bloggers, step aside !).

  13. Amen to that. There is a way too much opinion flying around. Most people visit blogs for info-tainment anyway. They don’t come to hear something that they can get from an angry relative or around the water cooler.

    I have found that the blogs I appreciate are the ones that have an “original idea,” to quote physisict John Nash. Nobody wants to jump from blog to blog and have them all preach in the same style.

    Sure, it’s harder, but that’s how you build a business. No one said an original voice was easy.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  14. This is one of the things that has frustrated me about my blogging experience. I’ve done my half century on Earth and started schools in Harlem, India, and soon Africa. I’ve assisted police departments around the US, and raised several kids. I’m not a pundit or guru or an SEO maven. Some of the thought leaders can be provocative but I always go back to asking myself “But what have you done to bring real value to anyone’s life?” Some of it is jealousy but I will continue to ask the question.

  15. Being in love with ideas, all ideas, I love it when someone makes me think—especially thinking about old things in new ways. Within that context, “thought leaders” are not bad, at least not for me.

    What I hate is the trend we have now of one “thought leader” coming out with an opinion and then everyone jumping on the bandwagon. (“It must be what we all should do/say/think because John So-an-So said so.”) And THAT, as Stacy said above, can be dangerous. Can’t we think for ourselves anymore?!

    As far as action well, yes, it’s the hard part and few of us have the gumption to ACT on ideas. It is the same reason you see the same people at conferences, over and over again, standing up and cheering speakers, making a stampede to the back of the auditorium to buy their books and DVDs. Because that is the easy thing to do.

    And the “thought leaders” take advantage of this by appealing to the DREAM of being wealthy or famous or thin or whatever. Because the dream is the feel-good part. ACTIVATING the dream, living the vision, that’s the hard part.

    Hmm. Don’t know where that came from. Hope I didn’t stray too far off topic.

  16. Great advice as usual. Made me wonder what the ancient Olympians did with their laurel leaves after they won the tournament. Not like you could press them in a book or scrapbook.

    Official launch today of my website,
    Hope I will be a thought leader and not just a thought repeater.
    Thanks again for all your encouragement James. You are a thought leader with an action plan.

  17. With all due respect James, I think you have just slammed an aspect of being a leader that is extremely important. To lead in any endeavor you must have an opinion. It is a core aspect of making decisions, having a vision and providing people with the guts to strive toward success.

    To have any sort of vision of the future, people must form an opinion of where we currently stand, and where we are headed. Without feeling strongly about that opinion, we wouldn’t have innovation because the creators wouldn’t have the confidence to pursue an idea.

    I understand what you are saying about the large number of blog posts being purely opinion based. That being said, it is opinions that make us more interesting than the facts. I agree that there should always be something to learn, take action on or gain enjoyment from with every blog post. However opinions are an essential part of blogging because that is what differentiates us from the likes of Wikipedia or the dictionary. (I’d suggest newspapers but they are highly opinionated)

  18. When I first heard the term “thought leader” I too thought it to be pretentious codswallop. I tried using it in speaking and people would ask, “Huh?”

    So now I use the terms “leading thinker,” leading authority,” “acknowledged authority.” People get it. But that speaks only to the nomenclature, not the broader meaning. As you point out, James, anyone who is blogging/tweeting and getting a couple of head turns hasn’t earned the right to call themselves a thought leader.

    Because I also guide women who want to be recognized as leading authorities and influencers in their respective fields of expertise, which they do in part by making their ideas broadly accessible (think books, for starters), this subject is near and dear to me.

    Back in ’07, Business Week ran an article on self branding, to which I responded. They published my response and here it is (the typo is theirs — see if you can spot it!)

    “Although Diane Brady writes that “turning yourself into a brand isn’t easy” (“Creating brand you,” The Future of Work, Aug. 20/27), the “Make ’em take notice” sidebar makes it seem that anyone can be known for, essentially, anything.

    Here’s what it really takes to be a branded influence or “thought leader”: Start with unusual depth of knowledge in your field. Without knowledge, the world will brand you as a fake. Check that you have the ambition to make a small piece of the world a better place. Then you must own an idea, brand it, publish it in book form, and hold sway in front of many audiences. If your idea does become part of the popular or industry lexicon, you’ll be known as someone who influences many.

    Finally, make sure your skin is thick enough to manage those people who invariably will try to take you down.”

  19. @Stacy – I imagine it came about as someone who encourages new directions by provoking thinking in others… but I don’t like “thought leader” as a term myself, because it makes those soapboxes a little too easy to climb onto 🙂

    @Ed – I think catchwords just sound so cool everyone has to use them to death. Then someone has to be cool and start a new trend!

    @Nathan – Various situations and people inspired this. It’s been on my mind for a little while, and it just wrote itself one day.

    @Tom – I agree that many people and businesses have jumbled thoughts, and discussion helps untangle them into straight lines. But there are too many people mindlessly following others these days and heaping praise just because. Maybe these folk don’t want their jumbles untangled and just want a wagon to ride on 😉

    @Joshua – I like opinion. I *don’t* like when people assume everyone thinks as they do or that their thoughts are “right”. And that’s why I like original ideas and angles (insomuch as such is possible these days!)

    @Hans – Many people change many lives in small ways. I respect these, as not all people want to change a whole world. But a little ripple can do just that. However, if all people can do are throw stones for the hell of it, then they’re not making many waves in the lake, are they? 😉

    @Judy – Yeah, you hit it on the head. Well done.

    @Mary – Awesome! Good for you! There’s action for ya, and I’m glad you did it!

    @Roberta – My skin is very thick. Tried, tested and proven. Yessir. 😉

  20. I’ve stopped worrying about this thought leader stuff. (Ok, I haven’t, but I’m going to stop worrying about it. soon.)

    It turns out to be a lot more interesting -> to me <- to help people buy my stuff which will help them even more. There's nothing quite like waking up to the smell of money in my email in the morning.

    This thought leader stuff. Too much thinking. Rather go surfing.

  21. The thought leaders that piss me off most are those who give dangerous medical advice. Suddenly they have a lot of readers and they start acting like they are God.

    You’ve probably seen some of the crap they spew out. Things like, don’t take anti-depressants if you’re suicidal, just read some happy clappy book. And their cheerleaders tell them how wonderful they are for giving such smart advice.

    It’s ridiculous – they have no experience, no training, no research to back up what they say and they’ve probably never felt suicidal. And the worst thing is, some poor desperate kid might read this crap and wind up dead because of it.

    Anyway – rant over but these people really piss me off.

  22. Hmmm food for thought 🙂 I haven’t heard the term “thought leader” in awhile. Like someone else said, I’ve been “starting somewhere” with my blog. It’s what I know, what I’ve been living, what I’ve been walking and talking and writing. So why not a blog about it? I’ve had the idea to inspire people and, somewhere along the line, possible get involved in a more structured way with world peace. But I’m exploring right now, seeing if I want to narrow my topic down a bit.

    I know what you mean, though. I read what people are saying for awhile and, if I think I can learn something and they have some shred of wisdom, I hang around and read some more. If it’s the same drivel I’ve been reading everywhere else for years and years–I was in charge of self help, psychology, spirituality etc in a major book store back in the early 90s and read everything and still do, or at least keep up with trends–well I have other stuff to do. But plenty of people may really appreciate that writer’s efforts!

    Heck, as long as it’s not about how to rob banks, kill people, and doesn’t promote cruelty toward animals and whatever (and isn’t totally stupid lol though even if it is, it will fizzle) I’m all for it. It’s about spreading ideas, I think. A way to communicate, evolve…so many things.

  23. I agree. I just did a Google search on for the phrase “thought leader” (with a few exclusions to minimize false hits). Apparently more than sixteen thousand people describe themselves as thought leaders. Whose thoughts are all these people leading? It’s the equivalent of saying “I’m a deep thinker. I’m very wise.” If the term is to be used at all, it should be used by people to describe other people, not themselves.

  24. @Dave – I agree that helping people by selling them products and services that HELP is a much better way to go about it than telling them what to do. (Um, that’s circular logic, I think…)

    @Cath – Good to see you back here! As for medical advice, there’s a huge minefield on the ‘net. A writer who changes “will cause” to “may cause” might end up killing someone. Niiiice… Always double-check what you read by a professional!

    @Leah – Spreading ideas is good, yup, but I much prefer listening to ideas from someone who actually uses them and proves them versus someone who just talks about them.

    @Peter – I was scared to Google “thought leader”. Seriously.

  25. LOL @James You remind me of a guy I met awhile back who had written a book called (something like ) “How to please a woman every time and have her scream for more.” I went out with him one time, and I definitely did not want to find out if he actually uses his ideas lmao I had picked up his book in between the time I met him and we went out, and it was pretty stupid, and I guess he sort of fit my opinion of the book but I didn’t want to prove my hyposthesis 🙂

  26. There’s a lot to be said for pragmatic impact and getting up to bat.

    Sometimes we’ll strike out. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’ll nail a hone run. The key is not to miss out on all the beautiful singles and doubles along the way.

    At the end of a fight, in Street Fighter, when Ryu won, he would freeze in a respectful stance. It looked more like a humble, personal victory … no glory, just giving his best.

  27. Freakin’ Fantastic, Mate! Translation: I agree with a lot of what you said here, James.

    I would like to add: A Truly good idea worth of action provokes the idea that Change is next, this brings on the uneasiness of unknown outcomes, which is frightening for most….exciting for others.

  28. Chris Fowler says:

    There are always people in the world who want to make a personal impact and hey as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else good luck to them


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