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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Who are the real thought leaders?

by Mike Myatt

Thought LeadershipThought Leadership...What is a thought leader, and what does thought leadership mean in today's business world? As much as some people wish it wasn't so, a thought leader is not someone who simply restates someone else's views and positions. Furthermore, beyond uniqueness of thought, a true thought leader's positions also challenge established norms and conventions. Moreover, the true litmus test for a thought leader is when their unique ideas are implemented in the marketplace, they tend to create disruptive innovation, and often change the way we view the world. In today's post I'll examine the subject of thought leadership in an attempt to separate fact from fiction

It is certainly much easier to look back in time at world leaders, Nobel laureates, religious scholars, philosophers, and captains of industry to identify historical thought leaders than it is to identify today's visionaries. This is due to the fact that thought leadership was once a term reserved for a limited few. Regrettably the label of thought leader has evolved to become a self-bestowed title for anyone who has something to say or promote, often without regard for qualitative issues. Some would say that the term thought leader, once synonymous with futurist and innovator, is more closely aligned with snake-oil salesman today. Don't get me wrong, true thought leaders still exist; they are just much harder to spot these days.

Let me begin by stating that authentic thought leaders, the real deals, are not created via great marketing and PR alone. While they are oft published, quite outspoken, and many times represented by marvelous publicists, they are not merely contrived, self-promoted legends in their own minds. Rather true thought leaders are born out of real-world successes, achievements, and contributions that have been recognized by their peers and competitors alike. Their work is widely regarded as being innovative, disruptive, and market altering. They are not the posers, but the players. They are not spin masters trying to make it, but are the undisputed market leaders that have already arrived.

It is also important to draw a distinction between personal or corporate branding and thought leadership. While thought leaders often become well recognized brands, there are many well crafted brands that have messaged thought leadership where none exists. Don't allow yourself to get caught-up in the spin and hype associated with great marketers who will gladly accept compensation, but will leave you woefully disappointed when it comes to living-up to their billing. Look for real results based upon market leadership, and not just brand leadership alone.

The best example I can give you about discerning the difference between brand leaders and thought leaders is that of large consulting companies. I would challenge the brand perception that McKinsey or Bain are the true thought leaders in their sector. I would submit that you will find the true innovation and thought leadership taking place at the smaller consultancies. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that there is almost an inverse relationship between size and thought leadership in the consulting world in that the bigger a firm is, the less likely they are to be innovators. Rather it is those firms chasing the big brands that must innovate to survive, and that often employ today's thought leaders. I have walked into many businesses over the years that were branded as market leaders that hadn't come up with a new idea for years. The fact of the matter is that the more institutional a firm becomes, the harder it is to maintain an entrepreneurial edge driven by a culture of innovation.

While I don't want to belabor the point and unfairly pick on large consulting firms, I think it's important to go a bit further with this train of thought. You see, the legions of twenty and thirty-something consultants employed by Accenture, McKinsey, Bain, Booz Allen Hamilton etc., haven't lived long enough to even form their own thoughts much less become thought leaders. One of the problems I have with large consultancies is that they often label themselves as thought leaders (strike one). They repurpose generic materials across industries and sectors and spin "old" as "innovative" (can you say best practices? strike two). They have regrettably become pimps of mass merchandised mediocrity (strike three).

As noted above, espousing 'best practices' propaganda has nothing to do with thought leadership, but has everything to do with creating mediocrity. What I have witnessed time and again is that these purported thought leaders have in reality weakened businesses, damaged brands, and commoditized competitive advantages for many entities, which ultimately adversely impacts their profitability and sustainability. I know my perspective may appear jaded, but I'm so tired of reading the drivel of people that don't have anything unique to say, who have been deemed as brilliant up-and-comers that I just want to scream.

I have nothing against the term thought leader, however it is my opinion the label should be reserved as an honor to bestow upon a select few, and not a title to be adopted by the masses. Dilution has the opposite effect of scarcity in that it diminishes value. Can you remember when the title of Vice President or Managing Director actually meant something? I can.

Bottom line...judge people on their actions and results, not their rhetoric. Don't accept conventional wisdom as gospel unless you can validate proof of concept, and then only accept it if you can innovate with it, or around it. Challenge everything in business by looking to improve upon the status quo and differentiate yourself from your competition. I don't advise my clients to adopt the practices of their peers, but rather to be disruptive with their innovation such that they create or widen market gaps between themselves and their peers. Lastly, when you run across a real thought leader, you'll clearly recognize them as such for there is something truly unique in both their words and deeds.

Mike MyattMike Myatt, is a Top CEO Coach, author of "Leadership Matters...The CEO Survival Manual", and Managing Director of N2Growth.

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Blogger gregory said...

the leading-edge of the status quo ...

"thought leaders" will have no job, no speaking fees, no book sales, if they are actually outside the current paradigm ...

they lead nothing ...

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Graham Horton said...

i liked the observations about large consultancies hyping up their young consultants and rehashing generic knowledge as the latest thing :)

an additional observation of my own is that many genuine thought leaders soon cease to be just that. instead they go from conference to conference repeating the ideas that made them into thought leaders several years previously. it presumably earns them a lot of money, awards and recognition, but disqualifies them from being thought leaders. it's rather like aging rock bands which used to be the avant garde, but now just endlessly tour with their decades-old songs.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Excellent article. Here are my views on leadership itself:

Leadership is the art of mobilizing others toward shared aspirations. In a business enterprise, management is responsible for taking care of employees who, in turn, are responsible for taking care of customers, stakeholders, and related outside parties, such as the government and the community, in an ethical manner. This approach also considers implications for the environment and results in profitable growth combined with an increase in the welfare of all parties involved.

Great leaders are visionaries whose intuition helps them to recognize and capitalize on business opportunities in a timely manner. Their success is based on surrounding themselves with “like-minded” professionals who complement them to help reinforce their strengths and eliminate their weaknesses. They build teams consisting of individuals who complement one another in a way that ensures consistent performance in line with corporate goals. The mantra embodied herein is “Build grand castles in the air while ensuring that they rest on solid foundations.” This is in direct contrast to mediocre leaders who surround themselves with yes-people who, by their very nature, are unable to contribute positively to the bottom line!

The wisdom of effective leaders enables them to appreciate the views of their inner circle and others. In situations where consensus cannot be reached, they have an uncanny ability to cut to the chase and make informed decisions. They foster an environment that encourages the sharing of ideas through brainstorming while realizing that innovation need not be preceded by the existence of committees.

True leaders place a great deal of emphasis on culture and shared values. They realize that business involves human beings and that profitable growth results from fruitful relationships. They normally possess both formal and informal power. Formal power is entrusted to them by virtue of their position in the company. Informal power results from their core belief system. They lead by example, thus earning the respect and admiration of their peers and subordinates. As a result, employees are enthusiastic about going beyond the call of duty for “their” leaders.

Great leaders build organizations that are vibrant and performance driven. They structure employee compensation packages in a way that promotes and reinforces the right behaviors and rewards people on the basis of individual as well as team performance. They believe that a base salary pays the bills, whereas variable compensation, including earnings before interest, taxes, dividends and amortization (EBITDA)-based bonuses, motivates employees to challenge themselves and increase their contribution to the firm on a consistent basis. These leaders find reasons to pay bonuses as opposed to those leaders who find reasons to deprive employees of bonuses they truly deserve!
Leadership traits can create a virtuous cycle for the firm’s management, employees, clients, stakeholders, and others. Great leaders have a natural flair. There are those who believe that their effectiveness can be increased through education, other methods of training and development, and experience, though to a limited extent.

Ethical leadership calls for morals, fairness, caring, sharing, no false promises or unreasonable demands on others, etc. Is “ethical leadership” an oxymoron?

I have a policy of distributing free abridged versions of my books on leadership, ethics, teamwork, motivation, women, bullying and sexual harassment, trade unions, etc., to anyone who sends a request to crespin79@hotmail.com.

Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

8:26 AM  
Anonymous Dr. Janice Presser said...

The only thought leaders that make any sense to me are the ones who've turned their thoughts into products that people use to do something worthwhile, like increase their organization's performance. Also helps if they admit to themselves, as well as others, that their thoughts have been enhanced by the team members they synergize with.

I guess that leaves out the majority of the kinder-consultants...

4:15 PM  
Anonymous Sarah Blue said...

It would be great if you could list a couple of people who you think of as true thought leaders.

2:31 PM  
Anonymous Dr. Janice Presser said...

Thought leaders are in every industry. The key is to ask which are sustainable, which requires that they have a Coherent Human Infrastructure as well as exciting IP. Looks like Chaordix has some cool thought leadership going! And although I'm called a thought leader for Role-Based Assessment (the disruptive innovation that assesses for Coherence, Role, & Teaming Characteristics) and Coherent Human Infrastructure management concepts, I assure you that's only because of our human infrastructure - our amazing team. My all time favorite thought leaders include Jerry Garcia who said, "It's not enough to be the best at what you do; you must be perceived as the only one who does what you do."

1:42 PM  

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