Tim Sackett’s HR 101: The Six Degrees of Thought Leadership

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I’m not sure when this started, but recently I’ve been introduced as a “Thought Leader.”

At first, it was flattering. Wow, a ‘Thought Leader’! I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it sounded cool.

You mean, I’m a “Thought Leader” like Steve Jobs? Well, slow down Sparky, not quite like Steve Jobs.

They come in different shapes and sizes

Oh!? Then a Thought Leader like whom? (The thought leader in me wants to use “who” and not “whom,” but something tells me my blogger thought leader friends will tell me I should have used “whom,” but knowing I used “whom” at all means it’s probably wrong!)

That’s when it hit me: Thought Leaders come in many different sizes and shapes. I wasn’t a great Thought Leader of our generation. I was more of a great Thought Leader of that specific moment. Context is everything.

Let’s face it, we all have different perceptions of who and what we believe to be Thought Leadership.

6 ways to look at thought leadership

So, here are my “Six Faces of Thought Leadership:”

  1. The Thought Righter — This is a Thought Leader that you agree with. You believe they are a Thought Leader because you agree with what they are saying, so they must be a leader!
  2. The Thought Stayer — This is a Thought Leader who has been around for a long time. Well, they’ve been in the industry for 30 years, so they must be a Thought Leader at this point!
  3. The Thought Thinks Differently Than Everyone Else — Yep, this person just thinks differently, thus they are a Thought Leader. This is probably what a lot people believe is “true” thought leadership (They are leading thoughts, thus they are thinking it before you).
  4. The Thought Best Practicer — This is conference thought leadership at its best. But, it’s not really thought leadership;  it’s thought leadership from five years ago. It’s now just popular thought leadership.
  5. The Thought I Work For A Cool Company — If you work for a cool company you automatically garner status of thought leadership, when in actuality, you might be a thought idiot. I won’t give you an example; you know who these folks are.
  6. The Thought Innovator — This is a person who believes everything is perpetually broken and they must fix it. “You know what is wrong with babies, they don’t come out of the womb talking and walking. If we just forced gestistation to 218 weeks and planted electrodes into their brains we could be having babies that were as smart as Einstein!” Um, what!?

How you REALLY become a thought leader

Thought leadership is a funny little thing. You can call yourself a “Thought Leader,” but that basically just informs everyone you’re not. If it is bestowed on you by someone else, they basically are defining what you are a Thought Leader in. Which can be dangerous, if you really aren’t that person.

I like to think of Thought Leaders as people who come up with ideas before everyone else that will eventually become popular beliefs. This means you are really only a Thought Leader in hindsight.

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Steve Jobs was a Thought Leader because he did things before others saw them, then they became wildly popular. In this scenario, I might be a Thought Leader in a few years if hugging becomes wildly popular in the workplace!

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

About the Author

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.
  • steventhunt

    Tim, I had a similar reaction the first time someone introduced me as a “thought leader”. I remember thinking, is it better to be a “thought leader” or an “action doer”? Cynically it seems that the former mainly produces powerpoint slides and blog posts while the latter produces actual results. But maybe the job objective of “thought leaders” is simply to share ideas that stimulate creative thought in others which certainly has value.

    However the term “thought stimulator” sounds creepy to me, so I guess I’ll go on using the term “thought leader” and view it as a complement when people call me one.

    • Tim Sackett

      Steven –

      I agree. It’s not a bad thing to be called this, unless people are using air quotes around it while calling you it! 😉

      Thanks for the comments,

      T