I don’t know a corporation today that doesn’t have problems. We’re all familiar with increasing pressures, complexity and today’s warp speed of change. There are ever-greater challenges to solve at all levels in organizations, and those challenges are keeping many of us up at night. One piece of the solution is to unshackle the unrecognized thought leaders buried within your organization.
This is part two in a series sharing my experience of working with people I call thought leaders. To help corporations understand and develop the untapped pool of talent they already have in-house.
What Is a Thought Leader?
If you google the term, there are lots of articles about how to become a thought leader. Be creative and blog more seem to be the main recommendations, with one blogger suggesting that having a lot of money helps. But all that is, at best, putting the cart before the horse.
Because in my experience, thought leaders are born, not made. They have an innate ability – as though it’s written in their genes – to think differently. To see solutions where others see only a tangle of problems. To pull disparate ideas and concepts together and fashion a new whole. To see new possibilities.
Denise Brosseau says “Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success. They create a dedicated group of friends, fans and followers to help them replicate and scale those ideas into sustainable change not just in one company but in an industry, niche or across an entire ecosystem.
If only! I would argue that these are the actualized thought leaders. The fortunate ones. There are many more out there who are stymied for some reason. Perhaps they lack self-awareness, business expertise, political savvy, or patience for structure. Perhaps they have a physical disability that masks their abilities – to themselves and others. The people I’m talking about are people whose gifts we need, but who often don’t fit in the mainstream.
It’s Fun to Be a Thought Leader, Right?
In fact, for many of the thought leaders I’ve worked with, it wasn’t even comfortable. They came to me because they felt like failures. They felt like there was something wrong with them because they couldn’t fit in with the rest of the world. Their way of being set them apart from others, and they saw it as a weakness. Often, so did others around them, who tried to develop it out of them. Which put my clients in the impossible position of having to decide between honoring what was essential about them, and succeeding in “the system”.
We had to tease out their gift(s), to look at the things they were able to accomplish (which they typically took for granted) that others couldn’t. Then they started to recognize the benefit of being the way they are, in the face of many pressures to the contrary. Which then helped them understand the value of being different.
These folks may be socially awkward, or hard for others to deal with or understand. They are probably innovators. They are likely impatient, whether they let you see it or not. And they are probably among your best and brightest, but likely frustratingly under-achieving. The kind of people you don’t want to let go of, but don’t quite know how best to use, because they just don’t think like the rest of your team.
He has Lots of Followers. He's a Thought Leader, Right?
Wrong. In fact, those who make the most noise may be the least valuable. You know the type – the ones keen to tell you all that they’ve achieved, how invaluable and important they are.
My ex-father-in-law used to make an observation about guitar players. He said that if you watched closely, you’d see that the best guitarists would hardly move while playing. They kept all their focus, their energy, their attention on the music they were creating, and let it speak for itself.
In my experience, this is true of thought leaders as well. Because this is something that comes from within, much like the artistry of a musician. You may be able to develop it, but you can’t create it in or teach it to someone. And most who truly have this ability, are pretty humble about it.
As I said, thought leaders are born, not made. And a big piece of their process is tapping into their internal gifts, their unique perspective, then figuring out how best to articulate and bring it fully to the world around them. This is not an easy process, nor quick for many. Often even the successful ones feel like imposters, tho you wouldn’t necessarily know it to talk to them.
And here’s the rub – failure is part of the process.
It is vital for people like this to take action. However, sometimes innovation in its early stages leads to failure. Because failure is where the most valuable lessons are learned, lessons which lead to ultimate success.
Think about people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison (who famously said he didn’t fail to create the light bulb 1000 times; he ruled out 1000 options to find the right solution), Steve Jobs, the Wright Brothers, Oprah, Brené Brown. People thought they were crazy. Often they thought they were crazy. And most of them failed a lot before they succeeded. But they persevered, and found the serendipity of discovery inherent in making mistakes.
This means it is vital to have an organizational tolerance for failure, or at least to act on the premise that things don’t always work out perfectly the first time...
Some Final Words
I’d like to leave you with an example of a thought leader out on a limb.
The first public talk in history on autism was given in 1938 by Hans Asperger, to an audience of Nazi officials in Germany. You can imagine the risk he was taking. In it, he said: “not everything that steps out of line or is unusual is inferior”. We are only just beginning to understand the value those with autism bring, particularly in the STEM arena (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist out of Princeton points out; “we prefer certainty over uncertainty; avoiding a loss over receiving a gain”.
Thought leaders typically don’t have that choice. Something drives them to explore unknown territory, to see different ways of looking at and doing things. If we are wise, we will identify and tap this resource and look to them to lead us – in their own inimitable way – into the years to come.
Next time I’ll talk about how, as a senior executive with a potential thought leader on your team, you can vet this person. What to look for in their CV. What to ask/how to talk with him or her about what you think you see. Because if you can find and develop them, give them scope to bring their gifts fully, you are helping all of us.
In the meantime, if you would like to receive my blogletter (in which I include additional resources to supplement what I talk about each month), sign up here. Or request my 8 Signs you have an Unrecognized Thought Leader on your Team.
I will also be giving a webinar on Thought Leaders on 18 November 2016 at 11:30 CST (5:30 GMT). The audience will be primarily corporate HR and OD professionals. You are welcome to join us – click here to do so.
Either way, if this blog has resonated with you, please reach out for help with identifying and understanding your unrecognized thought leaders. I’m happy to speak with you about how I can help. However you do it, do it. Because the rest of us are depending on you to help them contribute their piece of the increasingly complex puzzle that faces us all.
And please share your thoughts and experiences with others by commenting below.