Since thought leaders love the classic two-by-two matrix chart, it’s only fair to place them on one, based on the spreadability and provability of their ideas.
I’ve defined thought leader this way:
A thought leader is a person who has created a coherent body of ideas and is effective at communicating and spreading those ideas to an audience they want to influence.
But thought leaders’ ideas are often unprovable or wrong. Lots of easily spreadable ideas are wrong. Whether you’re an aspiring thought leader or just somebody who’s evaluating a thought leader’s ideas, you should ask two questions: is this idea going to spread? And is it actually, provably right? The answers divide potential thought leaders into four classes.
The Transformative Thought Leader
Transformative thought leaders have a powerful, attractive, provably right idea. People like this are rare, but there are a lot of people who imagine that this is them.
What defines them: A transformative thought leader has a powerful new way of looking at the world, backed up by evidence or data.
Why they matter: Their ideas change the world. Think of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, or Franklin Roosevelt. There are leaders like this in any field, and the rest of the field is extending and testing their ideas.
Why they’re dangerous: Once enough people accept a transformative leader’s ideas, few people challenge them. This leads to complacency. Being right about something doesn’t make you right about everything.
What to do if this is you: If your ideas are as big as Steve Jobs’ ideas about mobile phones or personal computers, you don’t need my help. If your ideas are smaller than this and you’ve successfully spread them, then work on bigger and more powerful ideas, built on your existing platform of concepts and promotion.
What to do if you encounter one: First off, make sure you’re right. Many would-be transformative leaders have ideas that fall apart upon challenge or close examination. But if you’ve found a bona fide transformative leader, study and learn from their work. And if you aspire to be one, learn from their research and promotional techniques.
The Seductive Thought Leader
Seductive thought leaders are great at creating and expressing ideas. They may be fantastic public speakers or columnists. But when you poke at the ideas, you find they are just sexy, rather than provably correct.
What defines them: A seductive thought leader is better at spreading ideas than backing them up.
Why they matter: The world is full of people like this. They get large and uncritical followings. This can distort the way their field works based on fashion rather than facts. My exemplar is conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, but don’t get the idea that all of these types are way out there. Malcolm Gladwell has a history of extremely well written ideas that fall apart on close examination, like his 10,000 hours theory and his idea that social media doesn’t create social change. Many of our favorite pundits, from Gary Vaynerchuk to Bill Maher to Dr. Oz, fit this description.
Why they’re dangerous: They thrive on emotion and promotion, focusing on protecting their ideas and following, rather than clear argumentation and evidence. This is how cults of personality start. Every leader of this kind is vulnerable to debunking, so they protect their flanks rather than engage in honest dialogue.
What to do if this is you: Nobody wants to believe this is them. But if you don’t have solid evidence to back your claims, you’re a seductive thought leader, not a transformative one. Spend your time challenging your own ideas and conducting research to back them up. If you find you’re wrong, don’t defend, change.
What to do if you encounter one: Don’t get sucked in. Be skeptical, ask questions about data and evidence. And be aware that seductive thought leader ideas can be useful, even if unproven. If their ideas are useful, use them. Just don’t imagine that their utility makes them universally right. Even if you believe, don’t be complacent.
The Boring Thought Leader
Boring thought leaders sit on evidence of an amazing idea, but they are unable to describe and promote it effectively.
What defines them: Typically, an idea that’s diffuse, confusing, or poorly stated, and a lack of talent and channels for promoting that idea.
Why they matter: These folks ought to be making a difference, and they’re not. They are sitting on top of something great, but their temperaments prevent them from spreading it. This is wasteful. I’ve put Jack Bogle, the creator of Index Funds, in this category because he was provably right about investing strategies, but his idea, created in the 1970s, didn’t catch on for nearly 40 years.
Why they’re dangerous: Their inability to promote their ideas puts them at a disadvantage compared to seductive thought leaders. Their inability to refine their ideas makes those ideas difficult to build on.
What to do if this is you: It’s easy to sink into a pit of despair if this is you. After all, you’re right. Why isn’t anyone listening? But resenting people for their ability to market is futile. If this is you, work on refining your idea, testing it on others and seeing what resonates. Create a promotional platform like a blog or YouTube to talk about what you’ve found. If you’re in a company, team up with others who have more status and promotional resources, but make sure you get appropriate credit. Boring thought leaders often thrive when partnering with people good at promotion, but both partners must respect each other’s talent and contributions.
What to do if you encounter one: Listen carefully. Pick out the most useful ideas. Make suggestions on how those ideas might be more useful to you. Encourage and, if you have the resources, promote the boring thought leader’s ideas.
The Insane Thought Leader
Insane thought leaders have unproven ideas and are unable to promote them.
What defines them: Lack of following and lack of evidence. Think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
Why they matter: They don’t.
Why they’re dangerous: If you happen upon one, you can waste a lot of time figuring out that they have nothing to offer.
What to do if this is you: You’re probably not cut out to be a thought leader. Work on researching and gaining evidence for your theories. If a balanced set of research shows you’re wrong, move on to a different idea. If you continue to obsess about a questionable idea, talk to a therapist.
What to do if you encounter one: Run away.
About the thought leader landscape
There are far more seductive than transformative thought leaders. This is normal — there are a lot more speculative ideas than there is hard evidence, especially in new, poorly understood fields of study. But the tools of social media promotion are now so accessible that anyone with a cool idea can become a seductive thought leader. It’s ok to start by promoting your idea, but for the long term health of your position as a thought leader, you should pivot to building evidence as soon as possible. An open mind is a terrible thing to waste.