A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
March 13th, 2014 by William

If I Want Your Opinion I’ll Give it to You

There’s another faddish new management buzz-phrase floating around called “thought leadership” that appears to be the next hot skill, or talent (not sure if it’s either) that current, or would be, leaders are told they should concentrate on building. Everyone wants to be considered an expert in their line of work, be it factory worker, middle manager or CEO, but being a thought leader supposedly brings with it a whole new level of respect.

In their 2012 Forbes article, “What Is a Thought Leader?” Russ Alan Prince and Bruce Rogers tell us: “A thought leader can refer to an individual or an organization that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.” There’s a distinction here between being a leader in a field and just someone who knows a lot about a particular subject.

The term “thought leader” has a long history. It was first coined nearly 20 years ago, in the pages of business magazine Strategy and Business. The Editor-in-chief at the time, Joel Kurtzman, made the distinction that those worth talking to were called “thought leaders.” The term encompasses leaders and even whole businesses. For example, Google is the thought leader on internet search; Amazon on on-line retail; Toyota on efficient manufacturing and Peters, Drucker and Deming on leadership and Tony Robbins as a life coach.

Like most buzz-phrases, “thought leadership” is an often misused and misunderstood term. But what is it really and why do we need to consider developing and nurturing ourselves as thought leaders? That’s because a case can be made that to be a successful leader, at any level in an organization, a manager needs to be recognized as a thought leader in his/her own area of expertise.

Since true leadership is all about relationships Daniel Rasmus, a strategist and industry analyst, and the author of Listening to the Future, puts this into perspective when he noted: “Thought leadership should be an entry point to a relationship. It should help start a relationship where none exists, and it should enhance existing relationships.” What this means is that thought leadership is about how a person interacts with others−receptiveness to input and also initiative to seek out others for new information.

You can’t really be a thought leader unless you seek out and accept all different views on your particular subject of expertise. If your expertise only consists of the knowledge and opinions of your peers and close subordinates then you’re suffering the consequences of mindless mingling.

As I detailed in last week’s post, most senior management types−supposed leaders−talk out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to being receptive to the views and opinions of others. Most managers are not really very receptive because there’s a threat that the views and opinion they receive may end up being criticism. Thus most are completely oblivious to what subordinates, or even peers, have to say. Despite the leadership buzz about needing to be a good listener, a leader needs to actually comprehend, and act upon, what they’re listening to. This needs to happen before mutual, two-way, communication can be realized. Unfortunately most managers who view themselves as “thought leaders” really only “think they’re leaders.” There’s a big difference.

In her 2013 article, “How to Become a Thought Leader,” Lauren Hockenson gives us some practical advice on how to become a thought leader: “Do something everyone else in your field thinks is dumb, and be right about it.”

Scott Ginsberg, author of the 2010 article, “10 Strategies to Stop acting Like an Expert and Start Being a Thought Leader” puts being a “thought leader” versus just an “expert” into perspective: “Experts are experts because they say they are. It’s all about market share. And all you have to do is go to their website to see how much of an expert they claim to be. Thought leaders are thought leaders because the world says they are. It’s more about mindshare. And all you have to do is go to Google to see how much of an expert the marketplace claims they are. An expert is an island. He puts himself up on a pedestal above the audience. And he capitalizes on the power of his brain to put a stake in the ground. A thought leader is building a following. He builds a platform to cement an ongoing relationship with his audience and capitalizes on the power of his community to push the ideas forward. Experts persuade, pontificate and profit through doing, because they’re full of themselves. Narcissists, Machiavellians and sociopaths all do this. Thought leaders inspire, infect and influence because they’re sharing themselves.”

I first want to make sure everyone understands: having hundreds of “skills” listed on your LinkedIn profile, or having hundreds of endorsements from your connections, is “not” being a thought leader. You might think your subject matter expertise in any discipline is the source of your credibility and that this makes you a though leader however, the truth is until you’re able to take criticism (understand other’s thoughts and opinions), adjust your thinking and strive to understand all sides of a given subject you’re not a thought leader. You must, as Ginsberg would tell us: cement an ongoing relationship with [your] audience and capitalize on the power of [the] community.

That brings to mind the quote from the 1997 film G.I. Jane, which stars Demi Moore: “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.” What’s interesting about the quote is it speaks directly to how many management types feel about receiving input from those lower in the organizational hierarchy. The typical “predict-and-control” management paradigm, I talked about last week, where the “if I want your opinion I’ll give it to you” mentality rules, is mutually exclusive to thought leadership. People who run these type organizations are not thought leaders–they’re dictators. There is no better way to build trust, community, innovation, and all the things that make organizations successful, than to help people find their authentic voices and use them, i.e., become thought leaders in their own right. Being an expert at navel-gazing does not make you a thought leader.

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