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Is thought leadership becoming thought readership?

Thought leadership is a term that’s really gained momentum over the past couple years. Though, that’s not to be mistaken with the idea that thought leadership is something new and pretty and shiny. It’s a new term slapped on a timeless sentiment: becoming an authority in your field(s) of practice. But as is the nature of the blogosphere, when we hear a new-ish term, we latch onto it. Like a child who grabs a tchotchke from the shelves as his mother zigs and zags through the aisles.

I want it I want it I want it. Gimme gimme gimme.

See, in days past, establishing yourself as an authority was a process undertaken in a slightly different way. Whereas previous methods likely focused on press mentions, articles in reputable publications, and trade publication affiliation (let it be said: these are still extremely viable options that I recommend), today’s authority is built through the interwebs.

If you want to write a book, you now have more access than ever to self publish. But, more likely, you will start a blog, follow some basic blogging principles, and work to establish a following. You can then sell this following your wares – be they “courses” or videos or phone time with you, there is a way to capitalize on perceived authority. Likewise, for about $100 anybody can syndicate a press release to try and garner national exposure. Further, places like MuckRack, HARO and many others literally connect journalists with potential sources, and makes the idea of press coverage an absolute reality.

Further, the method of sussing out authorities also falls in line with the modern Web user’s likes and expectations. In that realm, neo-authorities need to establish themselves as such through visually appealing content (e-Books, infographics, webinars, email templates, and the like).

This is how organizations like HubSpot have become so successful; by understanding that most “marketers” don’t understand how to market and provide them with the tools, advice and software necessary to succeed in today’s marketplace. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they created their own market category, either.

And this is where the idea of thought leadership falls apart.

Crowded spaces

Notable and reputable sources (like this one or this one or this one) have recognized this and built on it. And, for the most part, I agree: Thought leadership is something worth pursuing if you want to establish yourself as an authority in your field or niche.

In my opinion, the Great Recession upended a great deal of professionals who landed on their bums. While searching for viable employment, many people sought to focus on marketable skills. Since marketing, by and large, is something pretty much everybody has had a hand in at some point in their career, and since marketing as a practice is not restricted by professional guidelines (like attorneys or accountants, for examples), marketing has been the go-to specialty for the recently and mass-scale unemployed.

Job Zombies cartoon

The Great Recession created a movement of Job Zombies, who recycle content they see elsewhere in an attempt to validate their professional existence.

Combine that with the powers of social media and blogging platforms, and you get a lot of people who have some base understanding of what marketing [or any industry] might be, with the power to ultimately influence a large group of people who know less. This has led to an inordinate number of supposed “experts” and “gurus” and “ninjas” (terms which make me want to vomit, by the way) rather easily posturing positions of leadership in a field with which they may only be quaintly familiar.

Just because you have Photoshop doesn’t make you a marketer. And just because you have a blog doesn’t mean you’re an expert. At least, that’s my two cents.

Painted Faces

Like being a kid at a carnival – see other kids getting faces painted. those kids are thought leaders in being cool. so you get your face painted, to be part of the tribe. Then some other kid, some rebellious, awesome kid gets his face painted with flames and a double-neck guitar and he screams WooHoo! and he holds his hands up like this

rock hand sign

 

It is then you understand that this person, by golly, is a thought leader. He has gone against the grain – eschewed the pedestrian symbolism of unicorns and rainbows and tapped into a larger, earthier, rawer sentiment.

You must emulate this person. Right. Now.

Not to be a copycat, of course. But to show the world that you, too, harness the power of the devil horns. You have also tapped into and harnessed the power of your inner beast. You, too, are original.

And this is the problem.

Thought Leadership Becomes Thought Readership

Again, I am all for the idea of thought leadership. It’s how those who are thoughtful and at the cutting edge of industry (despite one’s industry) promote potential ideas, formulate hypotheses and ultimately illuminate a guiding direction on trends to come.

But, not everybody is a thought leader. Most people are not thought leaders. Most people are comfortable repackaging the same information they’ve read elsewhere and promoting it as their own.

This, to me, is problematic.

In crowded arenas, there is only so much room for leaders to take a role. The rest, in attempts to justify their validity, and in a way, existence, emulate and too often duplicate material in the name of setting themselves apart.

True thought leaders have made information accessible, and continue to do so, to the audience at large. They have given us their insights, trend analyses and predictions. We, in turn, have linked back to them, further establishing their thought leadership dominance, but at the same time taken from, repackaged and essentially claimed their work as ours.

We have read so many blogs, scoured so many articles, subscribe to so many email lists and downloaded so many e-books that this information has penetrated our psyches. Thus my hypothesis: The idea of pursuing thought leadership has led to a culture of thought readership, where we, the consumers of protected and cherished information have come to rely so heavily on it, that instead of empowering the audience at large to develop their own thoughts, has essentially diminished it.

Blame Nobody But Yourself

Maybe this isn’t a bad thing on the large scale. If thought readers are happy visiting others’ thoughts and quoting them here and there, good on them. I have no place to judge. And, likewise, if the thought leaders see this as an opportunity to continue to solidify their role as a thought leader, then it’s a win-win.

But there are people, and I like to think myself included here, who truly want to increase our aptitude, to expand our meaningful network, to collaborate and to be seen as an industry expert (yes, I know it takes time). Maybe I sound like a whiny little nancy, but it seems that many people who are writing about and giving advice on how to become experts are certainly not experts.

And for me, and others like me, to heed such advice, devoid of my own critical thought, will only help propagate the cycle.

I will become seen as a thought leader. At the end of the day, it starts with I. Those in the same boat as me, and there are certainly many, need to focus on what we do, and do it well. Do it so well that people can’t help but to notice. And when enough people take notice, they will naturally look to us as authorities.

It will take time. It will take work. But I believe this is the ultimate ambition of those pursuing thought leadership. Many have mistaken the bountiful information available as a resource to achieve this goal with a process  and advice that produces evermore mediocrity.

This is the message for those people: Stop reading, start leading.