"Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence, they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: "Thought Leader."
Columnist David Brooks said a thought leader is "sort of a high-flying, good-doing, yacht-to-yacht concept peddler." They are the go-to guys and gals who get invitations to speak to prestigious groups, participate in deep think-tank discussions and author widely shared op-eds in major newspapers.
The thought leader, Brooks says, "doesn't have students, but does have clients."
Despite the sardonic commentary by Brooks, thought leaders aren't all peppy cheerleaders for a cause they are paid to embrace. Many thought leaders are, well, thought leaders in their field. They can be recognized experts or just average people with meritorious ideas.
A thought leader can be someone who has rich experience, for example, in the field of law or crime detection or prescription drugs. They have opinions and observations worth reading.
Thought leaders can be people who are good at adding 2-plus-2. They can see connections most of us can't — or at least don't take the time to look for. They offer value by giving us context to evaluate current events or consumer trends.
You can be a thought leader by stimulating others to think and share. We used to call these people pot-boilers. But in today's sophisticated communications universe, they are the people who voice a point of view that makes the rest of us respond.
Less heralded are thought leaders who are really good at explaining how things work, especially things — such as assembling furniture or choosing office art — that are really confusing. They exhibit thought leadership by giving us useful information.
Brooks derides the faux thought leader as someone "not armed with fascinating ideas," but in search of great attention. These aren't thought leaders as much as circus barkers. Thought leaders don't shout out for attention; they attract it with the power, value or usefulness of their ideas.
Brooks says faux thought leaders outlive their usefulness, winding up at "powerless lunches" with only a lifetime of bullet points as a legacy. In their dotage, they engage in "portentous conversations" with other has-been faux thought leaders, expressing grave concern for a world going to hell in a hand basket.
Real thought leaders don't have to climb down from a pedestal they erected themselves. They are satisfied with offering their best thoughts, reflections and admonitions in the marketplace of ideas. Their value is determined by how much thought they generate in the audience they choose to engage.