One term I hear often these days is “thought leadership”. It’s important to be seen as a thought leader and have a perception that your personal or group brand is at the edge of… well, thought. It’s an interesting term and an interesting concept of course. Obviously, not everyone can be at the forefront (though we’d like to think that) or the concept of “leadership” is a complete fallacy. It would be more like the push to the gate I see when when boarding starts on a plane. Inevitably, a line forms, zones are called, and the plane fills up. What’s this process say about the people in each section? Is first class a privileged set who always gets to be the leaders (I typed this in the second row of Economy Comfort – not really coach, not up front) and are the rest relegated to being followers? Is life like this? In other words, are people who aren’t “thought leaders” in actuality “thought followers”?

These days, thought leaders aren't a journey away at the top of a mountain.
These days, thought leaders aren’t a journey away at the top of a mountain.

While there are almost certainly cases where a person is a parrot for whatever they’ve seen lately, most of us go beyond that. At the same time, we are hyper-connected these days. I live in a flood of information and lots of it influences me. Between the flow of emails, corporate messaging, tweets, content marketing, podcasts, books, online videos, and so forth, there may not be a truly original idea that goes into my head.  As I wrote that, I had a flashback to a TED talk on embracing remixes. Taking the deluge of concepts and synthesizing them into our own personal beliefs is a challenge and helps keep us afloat. Like being at a buffet, there are some thoughts we are drawn to and others which seem out there or not appealing.

I think it’s important to establish some baselines of who you are and what you believe in. The more sense of self you have, the less likely you are to be swayed by thoughts which really don’t represent who you are. It’s just as important to keep yourself open to new ideas in order to grow, but you need to rationalize them with who you are as a person. By picking up what you want and internalizing the ideas then you not only keep your sense of who you are, you get a better idea of who that person is. You’re not a sheep.

Are you sheep on a hill grazing on others' thoughts?
Are you sheep on a hill grazing on others’ thoughts?

Just because you pick up on an idea doesn’t make you a follower. Internalizing what you want and rejecting what you don’t think makes sense helps make a stronger you. What thought leaders do is spot trends ahead of others and explain them – hence the term “thought leader”. Without that communication and absorption, a thought leader can’t actually lead. It’s OK and actually desirable to listen to someone who has a great idea which hasn’t been thought of before. It may be fresh, it may be an evolution of what came before.

What makes someone a “thought follower” is the lack of individual thoughts and merely being a reflection of what they hear. It’s fine not to be a thought leader and it’s impossible to be one in all areas at all times. What’s not fine though is to be a thought follower all the time. Think for yourself, take bites of what you want, and have the conviction of your own individuality.

Author’s note: That sheep dates back to the late ’80s and was drawn repeatedly in physics classes when a baaaaaaaad joke was told.  Often by me. I think my wife will be happy to see the Physics Sheep live on.


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