What does a real thought leader look like? How would you go about finding one, or becoming one in 2015?
Mindy Gibbins-Klein featured Columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine reveals all.
First and foremost, let’s start with the Wikipedia definition: ‘A futurist or person who is recognized among their peers and mentors for innovative ideas and demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable distilled insights.’ Not bad, but there is one important word missing here: market. It’s not just about being recognized by your peers and mentors. To effect real change, you need a market, or followers, or fans or constituents or a congregation…you get the idea.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The key words I would like to focus on are ‘recognized’, ‘innovative ideas’ and ‘confidence to promote and share’. We need to look at them in a slightly different order, though, because chronologically you would first be innovative, then promote and share your ideas and then, finally, be recognized.
Change is happening all around us, all of the time. Our physical bodies, thoughts, the economy, social trends- just about every area of our lives is subject to constant change. However, sometimes big changes are needed, huge shifts that can’t wait for the natural evolution of things. Controversial though it was, the multi-billion pound bank bailout of 2008 was one of these big shifts and it took place because the politicians were willing to make bold decisions. The alternative (banks collapsing and people’s money disappearing into a black hold) was an unacceptable alternative, so it forced new thinking.
Nobel Prize recipient Professor Muhammad Yenus started Grameen Bank with a similar boldness, believing that people in developing countries would be a good risk, and they would pay back micro-loans, if they would just be given the chance and a small investment to start a business. It turned out he was right, and his innovative idea became a model for many other micro-lending programs.
The reason why the term ‘thought leadership’ is used so sparingly in academic circles is that they (the academics) do not see many people sending out a truly new and unique message. If what you are saying sounds too similar to something else we have heard, then it is not new and will not be counted as thought leadership. There really does have to be a strikingly new angle or idea to be noticed in today’s crowded leadership arena. Some say that there are no new ideas, so let me clarify this. It has to seem new and different enough to get noticed.
The idea also has to be disruptive and challenge current views in order to get people’s attention. My client Steve Glowinkowski wrote and published the cleverly titled It’s Behaviour, Stupid! Which has attracted many excellent reviews from captains of industry, education and public service. It occurred to me that while the subject of behaviour has been studied in various guises, the unique angle Steve takes and the explicit examples of his original framework in real client case studies make the subject easy to understand. It looks at organizational behavior through a new lens, and it seems to be just the kind of lens that people were looking for.
Being a big fish in a small pond has its advantages. I love running a UK-based business because I have been able to penetrate the market on a broader scale than I would have if I stayed in the U.S. The UK market is only one-fifth the size of the U.S market, so it is easier to get one’s message across. The smaller geography also helps, since it is easier to travel to different parts of the country. And the media tends to cater for national exposure, with more territory covered by single radio and television stations and print media. Add to that effect of the internet to cover the entire country and reach international markets, and anyone can make a really big splash.
Everything is constantly changing. In fact, the only constant is change, as Heraclitus famously said. But that does not mean that things change for the better. We won’t get to philosophical here and analyse what constitutes ‘positive’ (because let’s face it, a downpour can be seen as very positive after a long period of drought but very unfortunate to a bride whose wedding is taking place outdoors!). Let’s assume that most leaders in society act in good faith and want to bring about improvements and progress in their area, and that only a small minority are working with malicious intent.
Positive change can therefore be defined as having a good, desirable and beneficial impact on a person or group of people, or a certain set of circumstances or environment.
In order to improve the chances of positive change, there needs to be a positive intention, which takes more effort. Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln and every other leader who has ever created a huge shift in society started with a kernel of an idea and the positive will to make it happen. But these kinds of ideas are all around us, not just in exceptional people. The key is to identify them and give them the chance to shine; in other words, give them a chance to innovate and share their ideas so they can achieve recognition and make a real difference.
One visionary business leader I worked with was at the forefront of email strategy a full ten years before the rest of the population. She wrote an extraordinary accurate prediction of the ubiquitous email phenomenon in a paper and presented it at a major conference in the mid-1980s. It didn’t exactly change the world, but this did not diminish her enthusiasm for the subject.
The company began to spread the word about email to clients, giving away software which would allow them to use their personal computers to send personal messages previously reliant on telex and other slower methods. The culture of the company, being very leading-edge and high-tech, allowed for email communication among staff and, in fact, actively encouraged it. It would have been very easy to stick with older forms of communication; in fact when the computers or software were not behaving, many of us wished we could use the older systems, but the leader led the way with grace and confidence and the customers followed.
Travelling around the country and internationally presenting this material, I have been amazed at the level of reluctance and resistance I have faced. It is not just that some leaders don’t want to know about it; it is almost like they are fighting their right to remain non-leaders. Of course I can’t name here, but let’s just say that over half of the supposed business leaders I come into contact with are not enthusiastic enough about picking up the full mantle of their job.
Too many people leader their lives feeling largely unfulfilled. When lack of fulfilment comes from ignoring or fighting the voice inside that has something important to say, the feeling is magnified. My mission in life is to encourage and support people with important views and opinions to share, and to make sure they do it well, do it effectively and easily, and most importantly, do it in the right way for them.
By Mindy Gibbins-Klein, known widely as founder of ‘The Book Midwife’, Mindy is a speaker and consultant focused on business owners and subject matter experts who need to build their credibility.