If you work in the industrial automation space, you’ve very likely heard the term “thought leader.” I don’t think that this term is unique to the automation space, but my impression is that automation people use it a lot more than, say, computer programmers.
My understanding of the term is that it means someone has spent a lot of time thinking about certain topics, and because of their superior abilities, they have insight that no one else has. To me, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are thought leaders. Most people simply don’t qualify.
I mentioned this to a friend, and he was baffled “That’s not what thought leader means”, he said. To him a thought leader is someone who leads a conversation with various stakeholders as they try to come to some type of decision. This person has the skills and expertise to forge consensus across competing interests. It has nothing to be with being a genius.
Now it was my turn to be floored. Was I wrong about this? Are these self-proclaimed thought leaders not holding themselves out as insightful geniuses, but rather as consensus builders? I could certainly see where my friend was coming from. To him, thought leadership was about leading a group of individuals, each with their own thoughts, proclivities and prejudices, towards some type of consensus.
Some quick googling shows that by far the most common meaning of thought leader “is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.” My friend's idea, while interesting, is simply not how the term is defined. But, he's a smart guy, and if he thinks that way, then surely there are some other people who think that way too.
This conversation is a great reminder that it’s always important to examine your assumptions and to make sure that everyone agrees on the meaning on seemingly obvious words.
Another takeaway is that if other people are calling you a thought leader, you may very well be one. If you’re calling yourself one, then you might want to ask around to see if you can get someone else to label you instead. Remember, you can’t give yourself a nickname – you have the take the one that you earn from the people that know you best.