Thoughts on Thought Leaders
As a graduate student at Lehigh University in the 1970s, my thesis advisor and mentor was Dr. Wallace (Wally) Richardson. He was one of the most smartest yet unassuming people I have ever known. Wally had worked under Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, experts in the area of motion study and work improvement. He then became a highly sought after consultant in his own right.
Dr. Richardson was great at quotes and quips. He said things like, “Getting into an argument with an idiot is like wrestling in the mud with a hog. You both get dirty and the hog loves it.”
But my favorite saying of his was about experts (He being one himself). He said “An expert doesn’t know any more than you do. But he is the one with all of the charts and graphs”.
That always stuck with me throughout my career. As I gained more knowledge, I was considered by some to be an “expert” in my field. I was very careful to not overplay this or to be the guy with the charts and graphs and nothing else.
In today’s times we have a new term for “experts”. They are now entitled “Thought Leaders”. The definition of a Thought Leader is an individual that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and rewarded.
It’s not a pedigree. It’s not where you went to school. Thought Leadership means you provide the best and deepest answers, to your customers’ biggest questions, in the format your audience understands.
I will admit that my experiences with Thought Leaders have not been the best. In a number of cases I came across purported TLs who were anything but. They could talk about subjects at a very high level, but were severely lacking in subject matter details.
One such person was a Thought Leader in Activity Based Costing. He gave talks for some large dollars on the subject. Yet, when tasked with implementing such a system he was quite clueless. To me that is not a Thought Leader, but more like a Snake Oil Salesman. He may know about the product but he really has no idea what is in it or what its real medicinal value is.
I had the opportunity to work with this person. He was quite condescending to me with the old, “Just listen to me son and learn” approach. We were doing a kickoff meeting with a large organization on instituting ABC into the organization.