When I first read the phrase thought leader, I was seduced by it.
“Wow, a thought leader!” I thought. “He or she must be so sophisticated and ahead of our time!”
…but then, I tried to think of someone I would choose to call a thought leader rather than simply a leader.
No one came to mind.
It occurred to me that drawing a line between leadership and thought leadership is misleading. That’s for two reasons:
1. Good leadership is always thoughtful.
The term thought leader draws attention away from this fact by suggesting that there are two kinds of leaders: run-of-the-mill leaders, who occasionally think some thoughts, and thought leaders, who are more thoughtful, or whose thoughts are somehow more potent.
This is an absurd implication, as all genuine leadership requires an IMMENSE amount of thought. Want to confirm this claim? Pick any admirable leader from history and read that person’s biography.
2. If you affect my thoughts but fail to inspire action, you haven’t “led” me anywhere.
The term thought leader suggests that leaders don’t have to inspire action to qualify as leaders. This implication is ALSO absurd! Action is the fruit of leadership.
It’s one thing to get people to think, “Passive resistance is nice.” It’s a wholly different thing to inspire people to act on that thought, like when Gandhi and MLK got people to make serious personal sacrifices to support their mass movements.
This is not a pedantic semantic gripe.
This isn’t nitpicking—it’s a relevant philosophical distinction. If there’s anything we need in the world, it is virtuous and competent leadership. Accordingly, when we recognize people as leaders, we should do it purposefully. We should understand that good leadership is always thoughtful. We should also understand that good leadership inspires action.
As a first step toward actualizing this understanding of leadership, I believe we shouldn’t use the cheap novelty term thought leader to refer to admirable people. The word leader is both more accurate and more meaningful.