Thought Leader = What, Exactly?

I have a new pet peeve.

I occasionally get messages from HR people looking to network or looking for opportunities.  That’s cool.  We all do that.  No big whoop.  But, some of them are starting to get annoying.

Hi Jason… this is So-and-So.  I am good friends with What’s-His-Face, whom you may know.  I am a Thought Leader in (name the fluffy HR program).

Usually, I just breeze past it.  But, the other day I was grumpy… a simple case of the Mondays, likely. Anyway… I got to thinking… what the hell is a Thought Leader?

The title is pretty obvious, right?  It’s a person who leads thoughts! Makes total sense. But, leads how? Like, do they all sit in a room and brainstorm while the leader moderates? Do thought leaders sit in a chair, ala Rodin’s “Thinker,” thus inspiring others to do so?

I’m unsure.  So, I did what I always do when I want to know something.  I went to Bing!

I first came upon a New York Times article by David Brooks.  It’s a pretty fantastic article where, if I am reading it correctly, Brooks is essentially using the term Thought Leader where another person might say Hipster. A Thought Leader, he says, is a constant attention seeker who “uses the word ‘space’ a lot—as in, ‘Earlier in my career I spent a lot of time in the abject sycophancy space, but now I’m devoting more of my energies to the corporate responsibility space.'”

Digging further, an article on Mashable calls Thought Leadership “the highest of compliments, and arguably the hardest moniker to achieve.”  To become a Thought Leader, you must “Do something everyone else in your field thinks is dumb, and be right about it.”

Finally, this dude named C.C. Chapman says here that “Someone can not give themselves the thought leader title. It is one the community must bestow upon someone.”  In other words, it’s not something you can just slap on your resume willy nilly.

In my humble opinion, here is what a Thought Leader is:




Thought Leader has become another buzzword in the HR industry that is getting thrown around like “strategist” or “innovator.”  Since when do our companies care about our thought leadership?  They care about our execution.  Great…you came up with a fantastic idea.  What did you do about it?  Anything?  If you did, what were the results?  Was it successful?  If not, are you still a thought leader?  Someone came up with New Coke.  Were they considered a thought leader beforehand?  After?

Do you want to be a true thought leader?  Then, I agree with C.C. Chapman.  You can’t bestow this title on yourself.  Take it off your resume.  Take it off your LinkedIn profile.  Because you have a blog does not make you a thought leader.

Results!!!  Come up with a great idea and execute on it.  Show us why it was awesome.  Then… do it again!  And again! There’s a reason why U2 is still touring and nobody remembers Hanson.  Thought Leadership can’t be about who’s got the loudest microphone or who gets to present at ERE this year or who you know at SHRM. Thought leadership without execution is little more than smoke and mirrors.

Back it up, Thought Leader!


FOT Background Check

Jason Pankow
Jason Pankow realized long ago that he wasn’t smart enough to actually program video games and game consoles. So, he found another way to participate! In between bouts of pwning newbs in Halo or scoring mad gamerpoints, Jason spends his time as the Staffing Program Manager for Microsoft’s Devices and Studios Division. Jason’s day is spent running programs that help recruit the obscenely talented developers, designers and engineers that have blessed the world with the likes of Xbox, Kinect and tons of other rad stuff, much of which he can’t tell you about. So, don’t ask. In non-nerd speak…what this means is that Jason has the coolest recruiting job in the world! Look him up as “Satchmo Baggins” on Xbox LIVE. But, watch out for the dreaded headshot!


  1. Terryl Bronson says:

    Love it!!!

  2. kd says:

    “if you call yourself a thought leader, you most certainly aren’t one.”

    –Kris Dunn

    See what I did by quoting myself? FANTASTIC

    • LFR says:

      If you refer to yourself in the third person, you are not a thought-leader. – LFR

      • T says:

        I know Tim Sackett doesn’t think he’s a thought leader, he’s just a mind blower!

  3. William (CEO & SPHR) thinks you’re a wonderful thought leader.

  4. Jason Pankow
    Jason Pankow says:

    I consider myself a Thought Follower. Especially when someone says, “Hey…I think we should get beer.”

  5. Thought Leader says:

    This is funny, a load of crap…but funny. Having a humorous LinkedIn profile, ranting about legitimate roles, and making patronizing comments is not worthy of publication. However, thanks to thought leaders, you have a medium to do so!

    I can only imagine how horrible it must be to encounter your foul-mouthed antics in a professional setting, especially for those who have no authority to put a stop to it.

    Here’s a thought: With the exception of your 5-6 followers, above. The rest of the world wishes you would keep your thoughts to yourself.

    • Jason Pankow
      Jason Pankow says:

      Ooh boy….

      I don’t have much of a response, unfortunately. I have a meeting to attend where I will be Leading Thoughts by using big words and a fancy PowerPoint presentation. After that, I will get back to my real job where I actually do things! Then…I will go to Happy Hour! You’re invited, if you want to come.

      • Thought Leader says:

        Thanks for the invite. I agree that this is a “what have you done for me lately?” World. Not a “what good ideas have you presented me lately?” However, thought leadership is not malarkey.

    • Heather Tinguely says:

      What a breath of fresh air. I always think to myself “The world needs more passive aggressive trolls who post unimaginative and thoughtless remarks under anonymous identities.” Thanks! You’ve made my day.

      • Thought Leader says:

        You’re right, I was wrong…I shouldn’t have taken the opposite extreme and online personal attacks are passive aggressive. Extremes beget extremes and frankly I disagree with Jason. I’ll work on my emotional intelligence.

        A little background: I was angry from just reading a litany of similar blogs that were hyper-critical…not questioning status-quo, I mean hyper-critical with foul language from people who claim to be HR professionals and Leaders. I admit it, I was angry!

        Jason–how do you know I’m not one of those people who have contacted you in the past, that you seemed bent on belittling? FYI, I wasn’t and I never will be. However, I am sorry for being passive aggressive, very unprofessional of me.

        During my 20 years as a leader in the U.S. Army I have been asked by many “action oriented” people to investigate and take action on “suspected” homosexuals (male & female)…well I refused as long as they weren’t violating the S.A.M. policy that was in place. Several years after retirement the policy was changed and some of those soldiers are still serving honorably. I’m glad I didn’t take action and my thoughts on the matter turned out to be codified in law. I don’t know for sure, but I think this is an example of thought leadership where inaction was called for–contrary to the “action rule” Jason supports.

        • Jason Pankow
          Jason Pankow says:

          Thank you for your response and background. And, as a former reservist with gay friends in the military, thank you for your refusal to go after those who served. Thank you, also, for your service to our country.

          For the record…I actually thought for a second that you were one of those people that e-mailed me. 🙂

          A thought leader, to me, is an overused term. I see it way too often. True thought leaders don’t just talk, they lead. Whether through example or through management…whatever. And, it’s not just a label one can slap on themselves. This is the other problem I am seeing. Thought Leader doesn’t belong in a resume. It belongs in the speech the company president gives when presenting someone with the lifetime achievement award or something. It is something that should be earned, not self proclaimed.

          What good is a thought if it’s not acted upon? When I was a kid, I would want to play video games while talking to my friend on the phone. This was before the days of speaker phone or online multiplayer gaming. So, I took an ace bandage and wrapped both it and the phone around my head. Genius!!! But, I didn’t do anything else. A few months later, I saw an infomercial more or less for a headset that you stick your cordless phone to. That guy actually did something with my brilliant idea and probably make billions!

          This is my point. The key word in Thought Leader is the 2nd. A leader needs to inspire others. Show me a leader who led simply by talking? Please note…I am not saying thought leaders don’t exist. In fact, if you follow my hyperlinks, I call out some people I think truly are thought leaders. I am saying the term is overused by many who haven’t earned the title. And, the title can’t truly be earned without results to back it up.

          • Thought Leader says:

            All good points. Thank you and thanks for your service also.

  6. Heather Blume says:

    I wanna come to happy hour! I swear not to lead any thoughts in to bad directions…well, not REALLY bad directions, anyway.

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