On Thought Leadership


LinkedIn has been cramming “thought leaders” to follow down my throat for a few months now. In e-mail updates and via the LI web site, the notion of following thought leaders is trending. I suppose LinkedIn gets some profile out of it by making the case that they are sharing the thoughts of folks with really original points of view. That differentiates them from Twitter, Facebook and G+ which indiscriminately shares everyone’s thoughts with no particular ranking ascribed…most of which is, of course, crap.

Presumably, the points of view held by these thought leaders have made them as successful and well-regarded as they are. Therefore, following thoughts leaders implies the following benefits:

  • Learn the inner thoughts of successful people, improving one’s own chance for success.
  • Break out of the mold of entrenched thought patterns, and take on challenges in a different way.
  • Discern what’s really important to think about, by learning what thought leaders cogitate on.

Richard Branson

As Richard Branson’s name seems to be the one marketed most heavily as a LinkedIn thought leader, let’s take a look at his current blog post. You can read it through for yourself to let the entirety of the thought leadership contemplative experience flow over you and change your life, but we’ll just talk through a few points.

People often ask how I am able to keep on top of businesses in dozens of different countries and industries. Well, having an assistant who is on the ball 24/7 is one of the main ways it is possible…We do an awful lot of traveling and my assistant can smooth the journeys through, helping with the nitty-gritty details and logistics that would otherwise be a distraction. This frees up time for me to think about the bigger picture.

Ah, so Richard has a highly competent assistant who’s at his beck and call at absolutely any time. What I learned: busy, overcommitted people benefit from competent assistance. Uh…okay. I didn’t actually learn anything, because that’s really obvious, even to non thought-leaders like me.

Many people are using technology to make assistants a thing of the past. However, for those businesspersons in a position to do so, they may be missing a lot by going it alone. Assistants are a great sounding board for new thoughts and spark lots of fresh ideas. Plus, business travel can be pretty mundane sometimes and having company is very good for people.

Hmm, so not all businesspersons will be able to afford an assistant. Good to know. But if they can, a human is better than a smart phone. What I learned: Richard lives in a world beyond the reach of most of us, and so we little people better get used to Siri.

Meg Whitman

So perhaps Richard isn’t quite useful to me specifically, and perhaps I’m being unfair by picking on one post. So let’s try another thought leader that’s more in my wheelhouse: HP’s Meg Whitman. Here’s her parallel thoughts to Richard’s in her latest blog post.

Since competing in high school, I’ve tried to make swimming a part of my regular routine. The physical exercise and time alone in a pool is a great outlet for focusing my thoughts and relieving stress.

While some turn to drugs and alcohol to relieve stress, Meg takes the novel approach of regular physical exercise. What I learned: Meg likes to swim.

I keep my phone loaded with playlists that I use to tune out the noise and help me concentrate while traveling.

Traveling is noisy. Earbuds can help tune that out. What I learned: not a thing. What human is unfamiliar with using music to tune out the misery of traveling in close quarters with humanity’s horde?

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t include at least one plug for HP. One item I can’t travel without is the HP Envy x2, our latest laptop/tablet hybrid.

Oh, so Meg can use technology to her advantage a bit. Good deal. What I learned: Meg knows how to use a platform and social media following for marketing purposes. She’s not even shy about it. Good for her. Goodness knows her marketing team isn’t doing much marketing, at least not in the networking division.

My Take

Success or achievement doesn’t make a person a thought leader. Marketing a person as a thought leader doesn’t make a person a thought leader, either. Richard and Meg spit out common sense platitudes in terse blog posts that demonstrate nothing more than they are people just like the rest of us. You can’t find thought leadership in people who say what is self-evident or a repackaging of someone else’s ideas. Thought leadership implies that one has thoughts that break new ground. That’s what it takes to lead – to take others in a direction that’s not been visited before. To share that which is novel, new, different, unorthodox, and possibly contrarian.

An interesting implication of thought leadership is you should follow. And that means precisely one thing – you’re not leading yourself. You’re following. Don’t get me wrong – following might be completely appropriate. If you’re inexperienced at a given task, then following the thoughts of someone who’s been there before might be exactly the right thing to do. That said, you need to be picky about who you follow. Are Richard and Meg thought leaders? Well, to be fair, perhaps they are in their own way and for the right audience. That doesn’t happen to be me. But are there people I consider thought leaders that I do follow? Yes. As a technical person in a demanding field, I follow people who understand the problems of the networking industry and how vendor solutions help to solve those problems. Those people are leading me in the sense that they’ve perhaps thought through the problem and solution before I did, explained it, and maybe voiced their opinion. I may or may not agree with the expressed opinion, but they are leading off with that which is new and novel.

We are all capable of being thought leaders. We all have a point of view crafted from our unique way of looking at the world. Don’t let LinkedIn define who the thought leaders are. Arriving at the place where you understand and have an opinion about something for yourself is critical to being able to break free of following everyone else around you. If you want to be a thought leader, thinking for yourself is really the only way you can pull it off. Then see if anyone else follows. If my excerpted quotes above are typical fare offered by so-called thought leaders, then all of us have something to offer.

About the author

Ethan Banks

Most people know me because I write & podcast about IT on the Packet Pushers network. I also co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

Find out more on my about page.


Most people know me because I write & podcast about IT on the Packet Pushers network. I also co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

Find out more on my about page.

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