Thought Leadership

Leadership is complicated. It can be rewarding or it can be thankless.  It can be the job everybody wants or the job nobody wants. It can lead to fame and fortune, to ruin and despair. Leadership can do all of these, but most often it falls somewhere in the middle. Leadership is often performed in mediocrity and passivity, however it can be different.  

Leadership is ultimately “thinking”. Many may think of a good leader as someone who gets their hands dirty proving they have ‘grit,’ or someone who can stand tall in front of a group of people and provide a commanding speech, however, none of this happens without the leadership of thought.  True leadership is created, generated, and acted upon by people who cannot stop thinking about it. They cannot help pondering their responsibility. Good leaders worry constantly about ensuring they are providing for all of their stakeholders. Whether in business, politics, military service, or any number of positions, good leadership requires constant and constantly evolving thought to deliver even the most minimum of tasks effectively.

The value of leadership is most commonly reflected in the actions a leader takes with regard to others and how he or she communicates these actions. Deciding how to handle a specific situation with a specific individual using deliberate, fair, and transparent methods is challenging and difficult work. Leaders must work methodically, exercising principles, ethics, values and morals that he or she has previously expressed, continually reviewed, and ideally, written down to ensure everyone involved understands how the outcome of an action was determined and employed.

Keep in mind that every action has a reaction, often it can have multiple actions resulting in 2nd and 3rd order consequences. The concept of ordered consequences is the idea that an action may not only create the expected reaction, but may also create additional outcomes due to the action or reaction. For some, these 2nd and 3rd order consequences may be intended, but for many they are unrealized until after the fact. 

Ordered consequences requires leaders to think. Not simple musing, but critical thinking, reviewing a situation and potential outcomes in entirety. Taking an expansive, broad-based view of principles, values, morals, and ethics, applying and reapplying each, any number of times to ensure the outcome is thoughtful, respectable, and comprehensive.  This approach also requires discipline. Constructed and applied correctly it may require a leader to refine their own belief system. A thoughtful discourse of this idea was recently discussed in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Leadership in Turbulent Times. Discussing the Emancipation Proclamation Goodwin describes President Abraham Lincoln’s thought process as he contemplated such an action:

“For Lincoln, wrestling with thought was no figure of speech; it was an exhaustive mental combat from which he emerged with confidence and clarity. It had been a torturous ordeal to make up his mind, but he now felt confident that his lengthy decision-making process had yielded the right course.”

President Abraham Lincoln retains a reputation in modern history as a man steeped in both moral philosophy and logical thinking. Widely accepted, he believed slavery was morally unconscionable. While he held this to be true, Lincoln recognized his belief as ‘emotional.’ It was not enough to believe that such an institution was immoral and inhumane, Lincoln recognized the power of being able to logically prove this as belief as fact. Countless biographies describe President Lincoln as wrestling at great length to determine the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation. While perhaps driven by emotion, the emancipation proclamation was ultimately ratified because, as Goodwin describes it, “Lincoln deployed a language that was pedestrian, remarkable for its flat precision, devoid of a single spark of figurative or poetic language.” 

Emotion is a powerful motivator, however leaders must recognize the power of diversity in all facets of human existence and work diligently to clearly articulate their thoughts and actions in a manner that is universally accepted. Logic has proven an able medium for this task.  Emotion is a driving factor in many decisions. It is important however not to simply decree a decision simply because one ‘feels’ this way, but clearly communicate how one reached this conclusion by defining your guidelines and considerations. Often it is also best to define your own objections and how you overcame them.  This allows others to better understand the value system, what is important, and the culture a leader wishes to cultivate.

Learning is essential to thought leadership. Speaking, reading, and experiential environments all provide ample opportunities to further one’s insight into both well-defined theses and cutting edge concepts. Reading and speaking may offer a symbiotic relationship. Explaining to others what you have recently read often reinforces ideas, allows you, as the speaker, an opportunity to ensure you fully understand the material, and listeners an opportunity to ask questions, provide feedback or engage in debate. This is excellent for development of principled theories and progressive growth of concepts.   

It is important however to understand that thought leadership does not require an individual to be famous, nor recognizable.  Thought leadership does not imply you be recognized nationally, regionally, or even locally as an authority. While consistent, logical thought leadership may often lead to this recognition, this is an example of an ordered consequence as described above, not the desired intention.  The purpose of thought leadership is to provide insightful, thoughtful, fair, transparent, and consistent leadership on a subject matter. This is often a two-prong approach. One prong focused on the people involved, to include but not limited to, team members, customers, and stakeholders. The second prong focused on your industry or niche. 

It is not enough to simply lead people. The leader must also lead their marketplace.  As a leader you have to constantly perform analysis, review, and evaluation of your area of operation.  If you have employees, what would make their job easier? If you have customers, what are their pain points during the transaction?  What is the industry going to look like in the future? These should be questions and concerns constantly ‘top of mind’ for an individual exercising thought leadership.  It is often wise to incorporate the possible use of technology into these questions. In the current era, technology offers tremendous opportunity for low-cost, easily adoptable innovation that can often answer the three main questions listed above simultaneously. 

History is also a versatile tool in the realm of thought leadership. As has been stated by many people prior, “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” While the quote provides an obvious negative connotation to making the mistake of others, there is a more subtle point hidden within there as well: If you do not study history, you may only accomplish something as well as it has already been accomplished.  Imagine having the tools and resources to build a better mousetrap, not realizing the blueprint for the one you built was already in existence.

The thought leader is always a student.  For many, the term leader implies an implication that someone already knows all there is to know.  A thought leader never believes this. A thought leader is often the person who has kept learning when his or her peers have already reached a point where they believe they know all there was to know. A common misconception is a thought leader must be an expert, but this is not necessarily true.  A thought leader is someone who cares enough to keep asking questions, keep challenging the status quo. A thought leader is often a budding expert. Ultimately a thought leader may end up considered an expert by their peers, however this person still recognizes the possibility to learn more.

The realization, collection, and maintenance of one’s network is also a key component of thought leadership and personal growth.  Thought leadership is constantly evolving. Work to promote the industry(ies) you work in, become involved in local associations, attend classes and teach classes when applicable.  Pay attention and look-out for other thought leaders within your circle. Exchange information, use each other for ideas, feedback, best practices, and experiences. Answer your phone when these people call.  Send them an email if you have a good idea, need feedback or simply to keep in contact. This network of like-minded people is powerful and not to be discounted.

Thought leadership is not a designation of, ‘know-it-all,’ or ‘expert.’  Thought leadership is the evolution of professionalism and pride in your craft. It is not the person who thinks they know it all, but the person who realizes they don’t.  Over time, their peers turn to them for advice because they recognize someone who studies, who evaluates, who can be self-critical. A thought leader provides honest, earnest feedback and opinions, which may include the words, “I don’t know.” However, this may likely be followed up with the words, “…but I may know someone who does.”

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