If you are a thought leader, chances are life has not been easy or comfortable; more likely awkward and frustrating. If you don't realize that's what you are, it's even worse.
So if you find yourself having ideas or seeing solutions to problems way ahead of other people – like, it typically takes months or years, then suddenly someone else is extolling an idea you put forward as if it's theirs – read on.
A Friend’s Experience
We need a reject grad student who doesn’t fit inside a nice little box, who’s hungry, wildly curious, and willing to make mistakes.
Standards don’t work with what we are doing – we need someone who instinctively understands, knows how, and is willing to do what doesn’t appear to work. Someone unconventional, stubborn, and courageous enough to take the lumps it takes to work outside the box. Yeah, I guess you’re right – we need a thought leader.
The above came from a friend of mine over breakfast recently. She is working in our local town’s wastewater treatment plant. Yes – we’re talking sewage. Which we all have, and which is a headache to deal with. Because done wrong, it can be expensive and a health hazard. It turns out that, done right, it can be a money-maker.
My friend and I have been talking for the last three years about our town’s unconventional approach to conventional bacteriological processes. Our unconventional process not only saves our town a lot of money and resources, but also allows towns around us to ship us their waste water for disposal. Which earns us hundreds of thousands of dollars per year (a number that grew incrementally over the last 5 years) and saves us a lot of money at the same time.
The process was created by a visionary, (some might say ornery, I would say thought leading), waste water operator.
So not a "leader" in the traditional sense of the word, but someone within the organization. Someone who has instinctively, over the last 8 years, pulled disparate bits of research, information, and data together into a process he and now the rest of his team are continuing to revise. A process which has started to gain attention from surrounding towns and from the state, because it impacts their finances. Which, of course, tends to draw people’s attention.
However, as often happens to innovative ideas – whether they arise in the bowels of a major corporation or in a corner of a local municipality – many people don’t understand. Because those people didn't create it, they can't follow the logic of why it works; and maybe there's a bit of "who does he think he is, I'm the boss here" in there as well.
In this particular case the people senior to this operator (including town officials and his supervisor of many years) don’t seem to understand this new thing he’s doing, much less the importance of supporting him and his work. So out of what appears to be fear, ignorance, or not wanting to be upstaged, the supervisor and the town have been impeding the development of this innovative new approach to the point that the so-called Montague Process is in danger of being shut down and lost. A process that, as far as is known, is not being done anywhere else in the world. A process which has proven to be both successful AND profitable over many years.
So, What is a Thought Leader?
This sort of scenario is all too familiar to thought leaders. Because they are people who don’t quite fit – and who often struggle to understand why they don’t quite fit. They probably don't think of themselves as a thought leader. Or gifted. Or innovative. They may understand that they think differently. However, because many people laugh – or get angry – at people who think differently from them, that's not necessarily a comforting thought. Thought leaders are often misunderstood, and too often it is hard to find someone who believes in them, much less to believe in themselves. Which is a huge loss to us all, because it's a loss of opportunity.
Because real thought leaders – not people who've taken a course teaching them how to blog and make themselves visible on social media – are people who pull apparently disparate bits of information (ideas, intuitions, even dreams) together into new, even revolutionary ways of doing things. They can't help it – their minds just work that way. Differently from the rest of us. The result may be a new product, a new process, a new way of thinking, a new way of being in the world.
Thought leaders always bring change, usually for the better. However, sometimes along with their new ideas and insights comes upheaval, even revolution, out of which comes a new, advanced order of things. Because of which it also is likely to bring some level of discomfort, because change is uncomfortable for many if not most people. So thought leaders will typically experience pressure to stop doing what they do best, to instead be like other people, to give up their crazy ideas...
And that is a great loss to us all.
Who are Thought Leaders?
So here's my list of some thought leaders, based on my experience of them. Steve Jobs was a thought leader – arguably one of the most visible and impactful of our generation. Maya Angelou, Oprah, Brené Brown, Martin Luther King, Richard Branson, Jesus Christ, Richard Huguenin, Frankie Manning, Dr. Elaine Aron – my list goes on. Those are just some I know something about. Most of them have been in (or thrust into) the media spotlight, although many thought leaders are not comfortable in that spotlight. But either way they are people for whom it wasn’t always easy to find acceptance for their view of the world. They were strong-minded, stubborn, determined. They had a vision that would not go away. And many of them struggled and suffered in the process.
Because they also had to take heat. They may have been honed in the Crucible of Misfits; they may be highly sensitive, or gifted. Ironically they generally are more successful the more vulnerable and willing to open themselves to being misunderstood they are able to be.
Why am I Talking about Thought Leaders?
A number of my clients are thought leaders. Few of them thought of themselves that way when we started working together. They didn’t follow some “Five Steps to Becoming a Thought Leader” process (nor am I planning to create one). In fact, some struggled with feeling different from other people. However, through our conversations, or maybe through feedback from peers, they recognized who they actually are. And let go of trying to be who they thought they were supposed to be. They understood that they are the people who move us forward, find new ways of doing things, make life better. That they challenge the rest of us to think differently, to grow, to change, whether they like it or not.
They cannot always make the change they bring comfortable, because change often isn’t comfortable. But it’s like a turtle growing out of its shell or a child emerging from the womb – although painful, change is a necessary process that can’t be stopped. The best we can hope for is to understand, embrace, and ease it. Sometimes the best we can do is just put our feet in the water.
However, the good news is that thought leaders in full flow have an unassailable competitive advantage, and they can solve problems. Like our local waste water treatment issues. They just need the courage and wisdom (and sometimes support) to recognize and build on their uniqueness.
So, Now What?
If you resonate with the challenges described above, then you have probably experienced them yourself, whether or not you’ve been conscious of it. We are wondrous beings, who block from consciousness things we are not yet ready to deal with.
So, if you think you might be a thought leader – if you push boundaries, question authority, challenge the status quo, always want to see what more is possible, find (or see) new ways of doing things that others struggle to see – we need you.
With the increased pace of technology; social, cultural, and financial challenges; wars; our exploding population; climate change … we need thought leaders. People who can help find new solutions to these new problems. So now, more than ever, we need you to recognize the gift in yourself and others around you, and help it flourish. So you can do the job you are capable of that we need you to do. For our sakes, your children’s sake, and their children’s sake…
If these ideas have resonated with (or disturbed) you, please reach out and get support to understand your unique abilities better. I’m happy to speak with you if my approach appeals to you. However you do it, do it. Because the rest of us are depending on you to contribute your piece of the puzzle.
And please share your thoughts and experiences with others by commenting below.
And if you would like to receive my blogletter, in which I include both these sorts of blogs plus additional resources to supplement what I talk about each month, sign up here.
Above all, do not go gently into that good night, as the poet says – go bold! Otherwise, what's the point?