Is technology thought leadership overrated?

Leadership with educationNot a day goes by as the tech industry talks about thought leadership.

As corporate IT looks above the parapet to seek guidance to match  up to the demands of the business, the desire to associate with a ‘thought leader’ often verges on the religious. Events and WebEx’s and TED videos abound with thought leaders, offering practical and emotional experiences to give the audience a fresh insight into existing challenges and opportunities. Listening to a Subject Matter Expert is like gold dust – or like a sermon on the mount.

And thought leaders are in abundance. Not just the obvious ones – software geniuses, serial entrepreneurs and business gurus – but also the raft of people who have deep industry experiences,strong peer references and often, strong social presence and followings.

But thought leadership is not about sitting around pondering the what-ifs and wouldn’t-it-be-cool notions that flitter to the forefront of your mind, and standing up in front of strangers and waxing lyrically.  While thought may be the precursor to a phenomenal new process, it’s not what counts. There’s much more to thought leadership than just thought. There is research. There are attempts, failures, more attempts, and revisions. There is perseverance. There is collaboration. There are risks.

Thought leaders have that rare ingredient of blending subject matter expertise with vision that gives their audience an insight into the future. Whether it be a technological roadmap or more closer to home, with specific guidance on business challenges and opportunities. And its not always specific technology matters we seek thought leadership on. Direction on changing business policy and how technology needs to align alongside is a topic awash with thought leadership. Transforming the workplace and the workers therein is another. Direction on what do about cloud and the explosion of devices is a strong another. I could go and on. There is a thought leader on every corner.

Senior leaders identify with thought leaders of course. After all, to be successful in business on doubt needs some external ‘advocacy’ to cement ideas and soon to be decisions. A thought leader may simply underline an existing business decision, or add some nuance that shapes an alternative gambit.

At the end of the day  we are all thought leaders.

We all think about things, and we all generate our own individual ideas, suggestions and insights. Some we share , some we keep to ourselves. And for many of us the picture of us leading a conversation because we are positioned as a thought leader seems alien. After all our thoughts lead our actions or not as the case may be. Some of us are borne leaders of course, and others prefer to follow. Either way we all have thoughts.

Yet I often see people branded as thought leader when in fact, they are most likely just someone who has an opinion on a particular matter, and whilst undoubtedly having a well founded argument and ideas generation outcome, are only a version of you and me but with more balls. Or a bigger mouth. Or the microphone!

The commoditisation of the technology industry has happened at such a pace that ‘people’ have invented themselves as thought leaders through social media and journalism. In their thirst for direction, many organisations reach out to these ‘self made thought leaders’ for serious business technology direction. But of course it could be that thought leadership is just a fancy word for something else, and in many cases, when you meet a thought leader you are in fact talking with someone who has different or similar thoughts to yourself, and are perhaps more use to you when not given the ‘tag’ of thought leader.

Now assuming most of us do not have the luxury of being in a room with Bill Gates or Larry Ellison, our exposure to a thought leader may be in a more mundane and everyday manner. Perhaps at local technical conference, a blog post or a TED video. Or more close to home – in a management meeting or internal conference.

One should ask oneself questions like this:

1. Has this person given me anything unique or have they just managed to cleverly take a lot of rhetoric and popular language to tell me a ‘story’ that If Imp honest I’ve heard before.
2. Has this person’s story reflected any personal experiences that are directly related to my challenges and opportunities or just ‘nice friendly’ anecdotal noise.
3. Has this person concluded their ‘thought leadership’ with anything tangible that I can take forward to build my own story both in terms of practical advice and steps to consider to monitor my performance.

And here is the rub. As organisations undergo talent shift right through leadership programmes and importing fresher experiences, the wealth of thought leadership mounts up quite nicely thank you with Individuals with the appropriate je ne sais qoui,  and delivery KAPOW!

In summary, I find thought leaders live in a world of ‘free’. They are excited to share their views with you, and are happy that you can take ingredients of your own from what they say. They are often humble and do not see themselves as thought leaders. They are as happy in front of you as along side you. They will ‘give you’ something to take away and will predictably, follow up with you. You will find their thought processes and patterns as compelling in quite often an unconscious way, and that often once they have left your company, it will be then that the penny drops.

Yes – you already had sufficient thought leadership in your own organization but you didn’t spot them until it was too late.


P.S I must admit I find the majority of TED videos full of excellent and unique thought leaders. WELL DONE TED!!


One thought on “Is technology thought leadership overrated?

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