February 17, 2018

You’re a Good Leader, But Are You a Thought Leader? | Leading from the Library

Steven BellThe term “thought leader” tends to be associated with negative perceptions. Perhaps it isn’t as bad as we have made it out to be. What exactly is it, and does our profession benefit from thought leadership? Might you be a thought leader?

What’s the worst thing you can call another librarian? All right. What’s the worst thing after “rock star”? The phrase “librarian thought leader” might be right up there at the top of the list. My impression is based on more than a few indicators I’ve come across pointing to a general annoyance with this term. Some librarians hate thought leader even more than rock star.


Perhaps one of the reasons we dislike the term is that we lack an understanding of what it means to be a thought leader. If you’ve ever been referred to as a thought leader, it can be a cringe-worthy moment. I’m sure the individual who puts a librarian’s name and “thought leader” in the same sentence intends it as a compliment. Nice, but more often than not it just rubs everyone the wrong way.  Why are we elevating some librarians to a special status? And what the heck does it mean anyway? Most of know who our leaders are and what they do. Exactly what is it that thought leaders do and what value can they contribute to our organization or profession? It may help to take a closer look at what it means to be a thought leader. As we learn to become leaders and develop our skill sets, achieving some recognition as a thought leader is not necessarily a bad thing.

What’s a Thought Leader?

How exactly does a thought leader earn that title? Are they literally leading people with their ideas? The term appears to be most commonly used as a descriptive phrase, usually in conjunction with a publication, talk, or appearance. Think Simon Sinek, for example—he is often referred to as a thought leader. I’ve watched multiple Sinek presentation videos and interviews. I suspect that Sinek never refers to himself as a thought leader, but that’s the terminology typically used to promote his work. Does Sinek actually do what thought leaders do? I confess to being uncertain about exactly what it is that qualifies someone as a thought leader. Lots of folks share their thoughts on Twitter, but I doubt they’re all thought leaders. Is it some magical number of followers that makes you a thought leader? Is it 5,000 or 10,000, or does it take 100,000?

I doubt that numbers matter much. It’s about the thoughts and the impact they make on others. I follow a number of educational technology leaders. Audrey Watters has many thousands of followers who await her annual top ed-tech trend lists. She was recognized by the Chronicle of Higher Education as a technology innovator, and the profile pointed out how Watters challenges the status quo and independently questions and challenges our assumptions about educational technology. Taking a position or a stand, perhaps getting others to think differently, may make you a thought leader—if others connect with those ideas.

New Insights and Ideas

In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Jason Wingard, chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs, was asked point blank what a thought leader is. Here’s what he had to say:

Thought leadership can be defined as new insights and new ideas about a given topic that can be shared with a wide range of people. Thought leadership, at its most basic, is articles, white papers, books, and blogs written by leaders that can be shared within an organization or outside an organization. Thought leadership can come in different forms, including writing, interactive dialogues, and interviews. Or it can come in the form of much more intimate, one-on-one discussions through mentorship.

That really opens up the possibilities. I agree that we should expect a thought leader to have original and profound thoughts that a “wide range of people” can grasp and appreciate. If you say things that are obvious, mundane, or that simply no one cares about, there’s inadequate thought and certainly no leadership. Having great, original ideas is also insufficient if you lack the ability to articulate them in a way that inspires other to act. I like what Wingard has to say because it opens up different paths to thought leadership. If you have “new insights and new ideas” about a topic, delivering the message can happen any number of ways. It doesn’t matter if you reach five or 5,000. You can deliver a keynote or blog to a small but dedicated group of readers. What matters is the quality of the content. Is it different, unique and likely to generate influence? That and a few other moves might be the key to thought leadership.

Questionable Advice

Where I tend to part with some experts is on their recommendations for achieving thought leadership. Consider Dorie Clark’s article “How to Become a Thought Leader in Six Steps” and the advice it offers. Having something worthwhile to say and getting your ideas out there is something I can get behind—keeping in mind that the community will be the ultimate judge of value. Clark says that being a thought leader requires you to go beyond being good at what you do to indispensability. She recommends establishing an online presence to showcase ideas. Giving presentations about those ideas is something I can also get behind. After the presentation, craft the talk into an article to further spread the word. Where I draw the line is advice that suggests you need to cultivate the right relationships in order to exploit them for recognition. There are plenty of great reasons to network with library colleagues. Seeking to advance your reputation or achieve personal gain shouldn’t be one of them. Nominating yourself for awards may work but strikes me as just a bit too desperate to take seriously. Stick with H. James Wilson, whose advice on thought leadership focuses on the content-producing ideas that change the way people think and work.

Learn From the Gurus

Wilson’s recommendations are based on research into the highest ranked management gurus and the measurable influence of their ideas. Drawing on the findings, he shares ideas for producing world-class thought leadership in the article “The Guru’s Guide to Creating Thought Leadership.”

  • Whatever you are thinking and writing or speaking about, make sure it connects with what I like to call “the issues of the day.” Wilson found that syncing your ideas with what’s on everyone’s mind makes it more likely your thoughts will resonate with your professional peers. Being a bandwagon jumper or the nth person to share the same idea won’t help. The “leader” in thought leader is all about being an early enthusiast of or advocate for an idea or philosophy.
  • Among the infinite number of ideas to think about, successful thought leaders stick to universal truths. Identify the core issues in librarianship that are timeless (learning, literacy, access, etc.) and connect your ideas to these essential values. Everyone’s talking about user experience. Why? Improving the quality of everyday library life is an essential professional responsibility. That’s a message that resonates. What new idea can you add to the conversation that explores some unknown territory yet connects with those core values?
  • A basic tenet of learning is that you link the new to the old. Build on existing knowledge. Thought leaders have a knack for doing that well. Referring to business gurus, Wilson says they “often have a keen sense of management history. They adapt, build on, and reshuffle preexisting ideas into a package that appeals to managers today.” Librarians can be thought leaders for open educational resources on their campuses. To gain an audience, follow Wilson’s advice and start a conversation about the known textbook issues that are familiar knowledge (cost factors, unnecessary add-ons, endless new editions, etc.). Then adapt that into a package that introduces faculty to alternate options to commercial textbooks.

Creating Noise Is Not Thought Leadership

One other thing Wilson says tells you what is at the essence of thought leadership:

Thought leaders “lead” by staying ahead of the curve—by recognizing and writing about managerial ideas before they become too mature. By the time an idea has hit the perspective stage in organizations, it’s probably too late to become a thought leader for that idea.

Good leaders become thought leaders when they invest time in paying attention to the trends and latest developments that enable them to recognize what’s going to become important before the rest of the pack. It always helps to have a personal e-strategy for keeping up, identifying patterns across disciplines and industries, and recognizing what’s mostly likely to have an impact on librarianship. Efforts to gain constant exposure through endless communication of superficial thoughts on well-known topics and sharing of content that everyone else can easily access may make your name a bit more familiar, but probably not for the right reasons.

I think people who become thought leaders are the ones who didn’t set out with that intent. They just have a knack for seeing the important developments and making the connections that others don’t—and they can articulate those observations and ideas in ways that resonate with readers. Their ideas are not flash in the pan material. They can start a movement. One of Wilson’s criteria for what makes a leadership thought is its sustainability over time. He says it’s an idea that penetrates our mind and becomes a perspective that is pervasive and embedded in our practice. Let’s believe there is value in the work of thought leaders. We need them in librarianship to create those new thoughts, ideas, and knowledge that inform our thinking and practice for today and tomorrow.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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