The Death of Thought Leadership: RIP

We’re going to make you a thought leader. That was the plan, according to the PR folks. That, they said, is how we’re going to grow your media presence, improve your company’s credibility, build recognition for the brand and attract new customers. That was sometime in the mid-90s. And you know what? It actually worked. Bigtime.

If it were today, forget it. That plan wouldn’t stand a chance in 2016. There’s simply too much noise.

Today, thought leadership has little to do with knowing what you’re talking about and everything to do with sounding like you know what you’re talking about. The same goes for becoming an opinion leader, being an influencer or giving a TEDx talk. It’s all about personal branding: the fine art of “fake it ‘til you make it.”

Of course, content marketers will tell you that thought leadership is about content, but that ship sailed long ago. It’s all in the delivery. Speaking in short sound bites. Pausing for emphasis. Making cool hand gestures. Using impressive jargon. Making direct eye contact. Being an inspiring storyteller. Telling people exactly what they want to hear. And of course, lists. Lots and lots of lists.

I was just reading a post on a popular site about how to become a thought leader. The requisite list included saying quotable stuff, using social media, being opinionated, having a personal brand and a blog, speaking at events, making influential friends, that sort of thing. There was absolutely no mention of expert knowledge, deep experience or critical thinking. Nada.

That’s what thought leadership is all about, these days. And the guy who wrote the piece should know. After all, he’s a thought leader. A thought leader who makes a living telling others with no discernable expertise how to be thought leaders. And on it goes, like an enormous house built on a foundation of fluff.

Thinking way, way back to an era long before we all became super-impressive virtual personas of our tedious ordinary selves, it’s easy to pinpoint the handful of experts who, in addition to all the practical lessons learned and wisdom gained over decades on the job, influenced my career in the high-tech industry.

Lao Tzu. Ayn Rand. Mark McCormack. Peter Drucker. Regis McKenna. Theodore Levitt. Andy Grove. Warren Bennis. Bill Davidow. Unlike today’s self-proclaimed gurus who resonate with a growing underclass of wantrepreneurs and wannabes, those greats had the distinction of influencing a generation of real executives and business leaders. Now that’s what I call influence.

Maybe there was a time when the notion of being a publicly recognized expert in your field made sense. That time has long since passed. Today, I get dozens of emails every day from PR hounds pitching everyone from bikers and bakers to painters and t-shirt makers. Today, anyone and anything can be an influencer. Some guy off the street. A one-person company. A cat. A pug. A cartoon character. As long as it has a brand, the digital hoards are bound to follow.

The interactive Web killed thought leadership: social media, the blogosphere, podcasts, YouTube, user-generated nonsense, self-publishing, and terabytes of low-quality content and sensationalist clickbait. Even LinkedIn, which for a time featured heavy hitters like Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Mohamed El-Erian, has been opened to the masses, overrun by amateurs and diluted beyond recognition.

If you want to be an influencer, ask yourself why? You’ll just get lost in the noise. You’re better off letting all the shysters flood the media channels with their fanciful fairytales and inspirational fluff about how they were once nobodies with no hope who read a book or a blog or attended a seminar by some self-branded thought leader who showed them how they can make money doing exactly the same thing.

Rather, keep your sphere of influence small and your interactions with others deep and rich. Spend time with your friends and family. Focus on growing your career or your business. Build real relationships with real people in the real world. Influence those who matter in ways that matter. And leave the virtual world to the growing ranks of thought leaders and their flocks of followers.