So you’ve discovered that the community attention and critique of being a thought leader isn’t for you. You’d like to get out of the game, or you want to avoid becoming a thought leader in the first place. I, Phil, noted Thought Leadership Avoidance Expert (TLAE), am here to help with some tips to get you started on the road to recovery.
1. Tell People You’re a Thought Leader
This might seem counterintuitive. If you don’t want people to think of you as a thought leader, why would you tell everyone that’s what you are?
Well, telling people you’re a thought leader is like telling them that you’re cool, funny, or handsome. If you have to tell people that’s what you are, it probably means you aren’t. Justin Bieber’s LinkedIn profile doesn’t say “Pop Culture Phenomenon.” At least, I assume it doesn’t. I don’t actually network with Justin Bieber for business purposes.
Thought Leadership is something that people recognize about you, not something you declare about yourself, so labeling yourself this way is a good signal that you aren’t a real thought leader.
Put it on your LinkedIn and Twitter profiles. Use other synonyms like “(Your Industry Here) Disruptor.” Make sure every opportunity you have to present yourself to the world, you put up a big, neon sign that says, “You’d never think I was this unless I specifically told you.”
2. Claim Your Employees’ Expertise for Your Own
Business owners hire employees who are better at them than something. The person at the top of a business typically doesn’t know the most about every aspect of their business. You can be the successful owner or CEO of a cat food company without having in-depth knowledge of every aspect about how cat food is made. Your focus is on the successful operations of your business, not being a subject matter expert in every facet of your industry.
Because of this, it’s very common to have business owners who have a basic understanding of their field at a high level, but their employees are actually the ones with very deep knowledge of the area in which that employee works.
If you want to avoid being a real thought leader, pretend that your employees’ expertise is actually your own. Repeat things in conversation you’ve heard them say. Write blogs that are nonsensical combinations of terms and concepts you’ve gotten from them. Have a two hour meeting with all of them to educate you on a particular topic, then write a blog about it pretending like you came up with it all yourself.
Sort of like telling everyone you’re a thought leader, this might initially make you look like one, but in the long run, you’re doing irreparable damage to your credibility. For every one person who doesn’t know any better who says, “Wow, you’re so insightful,” there will be a dozen people who actually understand your field going, “This makes no $&%@# sense.” People will be laughing about you behind your back in no time, and your status as a No Thought Non-Leader will be secure.
3. Read a Book and Pretend to Be an Expert
You know that friend of yours who watched celebrity poker tournaments for a week and now considers themselves a professional-grade Texas Hold ‘Em shark? Everyone knows they’re full of it, because on what planet does a small injection of knowledge make you an expert at anything?
You can do the same thing to torpedo your reputation as a thought leader! It’s easy! Just read a book and start talking as if you could have written it, yourself.
Having trouble picking the right book? Here’s a good starter list for software development:
- Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan et al
- Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber
- Anything by Mike Cohn
These are ok books, but we don’t care about that for our purposes. We’re looking for books we can read and then fake being an industry expert. These books and others are ideally suited for that, and people have become industry pariahs overnight by reading books like this and then pontificating about the issues discussed in them. Everyone will know you aren’t a real expert, and this will drop your Thought Leadership Index (TLI) rapidly.
4. Don’t Have Thoughts
The most effective way to get out of or stay away from the whole thought leader thing is to avoid having any actual innovative or useful thoughts. If you are already using techniques 1-3, you are probably already doing this step by default.
One time-honored way to practice not having thoughts is becoming a Zen Buddhist. But the next best thing is to highlight problems or issues without having better ideas.
- “Most companies approach software development all wrong,” but damned if you can show them how to do it right.
- “Companies need to change their culture,” but you have no idea how to actually change a company’s culture.
- “We need to disrupt our industry,” but don’t disrupt your industry.
Constantly highlighting problems without offering any solutions is a Grade A path to not being a thought leader. You aren’t actually thinking of anything or leading anyone. It’s perfect. It’s like giving a big middle finger to the concept that leaders, innovators, and disruptive thinkers actually have to come up with anything.
Finally, to sum up and give you a set of principles to live by (because let’s face it, there’s no way you’re coming up with any), I offer the Anti-Thought Leadership Manifesto:
We are uncovering better ways of making fools of ourselves in our fields by doing it and helping others do it. Through this lack of actual work, we have come to value:
- Style over substance
- Rhetoric over content
- Criticism over solutions
- Books and blogs over experience
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.