plainspoken simplicity

Some Serious Thoughts about Thought Leadership

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

Thought leadership requires a powerful idea, the conviction and communication skills to convey it convincingly and the opportunity to express it.

Clear thinking and leadership are too often examined separately. However, powerful ideas without effective messengers are wasted energy. Effective messengers without powerful ideas are wasted vessels. Effective messengers of powerful ideas without platforms are wasted opportunities.

In her latest book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” Doris Kearns Goodwin traces the paths to greatness of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. All four yearned deeply for greatness and displayed strong leadership traits at an early age. However, they didn’t become great until they found their issue and pursued it with conviction, skill and resolve. For Lincoln, that issue was the extension of slavery.

Almost everybody is familiar with Lincoln’s story, but it is often forgotten that he spent the decade before his election in 1860 as president in a political wilderness. Lincoln devoted himself to his law practice by day and to deepening his knowledge about philosophy, science and math by night. It was the equivalent of a self-taught graduate course on everything.

Sensing the nation was lurching toward a crisis on the issue of extending slavery into newly minted western states, Lincoln plunged into the subject, including reading every commentary on slavery written by the men who framed the US Constitution. While riding circuit in central Illinois, Lincoln quietly became the leading US expert on the subject of the legal footing of slavery in America.

Lincoln’s views on slavery changed markedly from when he served one largely undistinguished term in Congress. The change came after a “long period of work, creative introspection, research and grinding thought,” according to Goodwin. 

Mastery of a subject, as Goodwin points out, is critical to leadership. “What is well-spoken must be well-thought,” she writes. Clear thinking is the product of hard work. “Without that labor, without that drudgery, the most eloquent words lack gravity and power.” His late-night homework enabled him to formulate a policy that would prevent the extension of slavery, while allowing it to remain in the Old South. Articulating that view from essentially the point of view of the Founding Fathers was striking for its originality and authenticity.

A key to Lincoln’s success in advancing this point of view was “his uncanny ability to break down the most complex case or issue into its simplest elements,” Goodwin explains. He honed this skill as a trial lawyer who reduced complicated legal matters to language and concepts that could be conveyed in an intimate conversation with jurors. Lincoln made jurors feel as if they were trying a case, not him.

Another Lincoln trait was simplicity of expression. “His language was composed of plain Anglo-Saxon words and almost always without adornment,” Goodwin says. Lincoln also was an unequaled storyteller, whose captivating tales established rapport with listeners while delivering profound messages in easy-to-grasp punchlines.

Lincoln’s creativity, knowledge, conviction and ability to communicate would have gone for naught without a platform. He found one in debates with his Illinois arch-nemesis, Stephen Douglas. Public debates were the social media and cable news shows of Lincoln’s day. 

Even though Lincoln didn’t win a seat in the US Senate, his taking points altered the national debate on the extension of slavery – and arguably the course of US history.

Goodwin’s book traces leadership and crisis through American history – a Civil War, stifling monopolies and corruption, the Great Recession and civil rights. But her implied intent in the book is to force a deeper evaluation of where leaders come from and the traits that leaders share.

Thought leaders don’t have to be point persons on events of historical proportion. They can be people who foster greater understanding of perplexing social, economic or technological problems – and the people who provide potential solutions. Through subject mastery and elegant, authentic expression, thought leaders can communicate complicated subjects and move the needle on public awareness and support for a point of view. 

Thought leaders must have the conviction of their views, the ambitious drive to share their views and the resiliency to withstand criticism for their views. Thought leaders are the people in the public arena described by Teddy Roosevelt. They are out there, willing to endure wounds for what they believe in the service of bringing clarity or fresh perspective to a serious subject.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.