Thought leadership and the dumbing down of society

Ever think reading all these thought leadership articles is like drinking water from a firehose? The struggle to filter out useful stuff from the noise? Ever wonder if ‘thought leadership’ is doing us more harm than good? I do.

I squint and wonder, are they really giving good honest advice? Or do they just encourage populist mainstream tat that discourages innovative and critical thinking? 

Three things I keep noodling over:

  • Firstly I worry about the danger of companies knocking out poor ‘thought-leadership’ articles that could negatively damage brand reputation.
  • Secondly I don’t always trust opinion pieces, do you? I mean why are you giving away your secret sauce recipe? If it was that good then… well.
  • Thirdly, I worry about the more existential problem of you and I following bad advice from so called trusted peers and letting it negatively shape our business decisions.

The latter is the really worrying trend I’ve seen take hold in the last five years.

This notion of outsourcing our critical thinking to the most popular ideas online. I kinda get the appeal to conform– to protect ourselves but popularity and voting for a thing doesn’t make that thing any ‘good’. We know this already – just look at the X-Factor, or the US presidential elections. Hype and hysteria can build something up into something it really isn’t.

Of course voting for a rubbish singer doesn’t really matter, but a bad business decision can be catastrophic. Follow the wrong trend, implement the wrong strategy or technology and it could adversely affect your brand, growth, profit, employees or shareholders.

WHAT CONTENT NOT TO READ (OR PRODUCE)
One thing you and I both know for a fact is that most of the stuff shoved into our face everyday is essentially crap. Here’s what I roughly see on LinkedIn:

  1. Hidden Agenda Thought Leadership (25%)
    Essentially ‘sales’ content masquerading as useful thought leadership with often questionable supporting facts and figures. Like this piece 😉
  2. Zeitgeist Thought Leadership (35%)
    Often regurgitated band-wagon ‘me-too!’ stuff. Rinse and repeat content that’s trying to show you’re on the ball, you know – part of the cool gang smoking behind the bike sheds
  3. Trophy Thought Leadership (10%)
    Shameless self-congratulation and promotion, the winning of industry awards to show that you are indeed the top banana
  4. Rushed Thought Leadership (20%)
    Often flimsy, yawnworthy articles with little research, proof or original perspective that’s actually useful. 
  5. Actual Thought Leadership (10%)
    Something actually new and original. Something thoughtful, considered, innovative and insightful that may change our thinking, the status quo and maybe positively influence decisions.

The problem is with much thought leadership, is there isn’t much editorial rigor. Anyone and everyone can blog. That’s good right? Hmm not so much… there’s a reason why we still read B2B Marketing, The Telegraph, Wired or The Guardian. And there’s a reason why Linkedin and Twitter is littered with junk. 

On who’s advice?

This leads to the real problem of following the wrong advice. I’m a consultant, my job is to give advice. Sometimes the advice I give (like a Dr) isn’t really what people want to hear.

It may not reflect a commonly-held or virally perpetuated popular view held by the masses. It might be a totally new concept or idea that we developed that hasn’t been tried before, that nobody else is talking about – does that make it bad practice? Risky even? I don’t think so.

I now often find I’m competing with ideas clients have read online, or a seductive trend their colleagues are all suddenly following. Often they come to me with a specific challenge seeming somewhat internally conflicted. The wider community and ‘crowd’ telling them to turn left but their gut is saying go right.

Of course, whatever their challenge, 90% of the time they will already have the answer but thought leadership has made them pause and doubt themselves wrongly. They have fear that they are going against the flow and making the wrong decision, taking risks.

My advice?

Spend less time looking at what others are doing and saying – and choose your influencers wisely. Trust your own experience, creativity and ideas and lead with your own thoughts. Remember thought leadership does often represent the fashionable and mainstream and is rarely ground-breaking, in context to you or innovative. 

Of course the truly pioneering magic usually happens by the ballsy mavericks. Those that challenge mainstream thinking, re-write the rule book and probably never publish thought leadership articles like this…


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