To paraphrase the immortal Saturday Night Live character, Emily Litella, “What’s all this fuss I keep hearing about ‘sought’ leaders?”
For those who are unfamiliar with Emily, watch this humorous sample of her evangelizing efforts.
I’ve plugged the term “sought leaders” into her classic catchphrase to contrast it with a major buzzword in business today, “thought leader.”
Sought is the simple past tense and past participle of the word “seek.” Something sought is something we have tried to find or discover by searching or questioning.
Most entrepreneurs, executives, and CEOs have been exposed to the ideas and expertise of “thought” leaders. Some think of them as the go-to people for knowledgeable opinions about significant matters. But more importantly thought leaders should be beacons of proven methodologies that light the path to success. In the business world so-called experts sprout up regularly and proclaim their thought leadership.
Some of them are genuine thought leaders. But most of the pack simply restate truisms or recycle old standard ideas with new titles causing astute business readers to question what truly makes a person a thought leader. I categorize these people in my Emily Litella-like term, “sought leaders,” because those who question, quote, and follow them are seeking answers these people may not have the goods to deliver.
Today the 24-hour news cycle and the explosion of content delivery channels produce an unprecedented need for expert opinions. Anyone who tunes in to the glut of viewpoints offered certainly has daily opportunities to question the bona fides of some of those who present themselves as authorities.
An expert is generally considered to be a person who possesses special skills or knowledge in a particular field. Yet a thought leader, by the definition of the two words making up the term, is a person who leads thought. Leading thought requires innovation. So an expert can be a thought leader, but will not necessarily be one. Experts, authorities, masters, virtuosos, and specialists are highly skilled and talented, but they may not have innovated things that others can use. One may be the best performer, or most knowledgeable, yet offer nothing novel, applicable, and teachable.
Key Characteristics of True Thought Leaders
Thought leaders are like snowflakes. They offer new solutions, methodologies, or ways of thinking. In a word, they offer something unique. And although it is a misused and over-applied term, it fits this bill. A thought leader gives the world something new. Her brainchild may be trademarked or copyrighted. When it’s first introduced, a Google search won’t uncover another thing exactly like it.
Thought leaders have proven track records of positive impact. They can relate success stories and provide testimonials of people who have achieved their objectives using their system or advice. Real thought leaders have publications, trademarks, copyrights, or solid bodies of work. They are trusted because they can demonstrate their postulations. Their methods can be taught or applied to others’ situations.
Ideas from thought leaders have stickiness, or as my colleague, best-selling author and genuine thought leader Bruce Raymond Wright says, their ideas are resonant. This means that people can relate to them. They can see ways to apply the ideas to their businesses and even to their lives.
Sing Their Praises
I’ve never heard anyone answer “no” to this question: “Do you know The Beatles song Yesterday?” That song actually exemplifies genuine thought leadership. Here’s why.
It’s unique. Paul McCartney dreamed the tune. He woke up with it in his head and immediately sat down at the piano to play it. It was so complete and had so much stickiness to him he was sure he’d heard it somewhere before. Over the course of the next several days he played it for everyone he knew and asked them if they’d previously heard it. In fact, his original name for the song was “Scrambled Eggs,” and the original opening lyrics were, “Scrambled eggs. Oh my baby how I love your legs.” Imagine if he’d gone forward with that inspiration!
But he didn’t, and the world now has a song with so much resonance it is the most covered song ever.
It is a proven success with demonstrated popularity over many decades.
When you read or listen to someone who others call a thought leader, think about Yesterday. Ask yourself if he or his products possess that song’s three characteristics. If the answer is “no” you may want to just say, “Never mind.”