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Why the term “thought leader” sounds self righteous and pompous...

29 Aug 14

The term “thought leader” has always rubbed me wrong. It sounds self righteous and pompous. Not unlike “hip” or “cool,” it’s something you really can’t bestow upon yourself without wholly cancelling its effect.

Other superlatives subject to this rule? Guru. Visionary. Don’t even get me started on growth hacker.

But social media is both ecosystem and egosystem. Here, self-professed thought leaders and self-appointed exemplars have something of a cosmic quality, both infinite in number and sometimes perhaps just a bit starry-eyed by what they have to say.

Don’t get me wrong: the medium has bred plenty of legitimate geniuses with something of great value to share. Lots of them. Seth Godin, Vala Afshar, Ted Rubin, Ben Horowitz all come to mind. These are examples of thought leaders who get it right, in my opinion.

But the question that occurs to me is: When does thought leadership become less about the audience and more about ego? When does it become less about the thought than about the leader themselves?

This question occurred to me over the weekend while reading “Of Myself I Sing,” Teddy Wayne’s excellent Sunday NY Times opinion piece on the slippery slope of self promotion. Wayne suggests that “much self-promotion on social media seems less about utility and effective advertising and more about ego sustenance.”

The fact that social media has certain narcissistic qualities isn’t news to any of us. If you’re a Facebook user, you see daily highlight reels in your newsfeed to this effect. But, as content marketers, how do we ensure our audience—not our egos—remain true north?

Here are some tips:

Add value—in Wayne’s NY Times column, he quotes writer Rebecca Makkai, who asks this question as her litmus test: “… is it something people need to or want to know?”

Listen—of course, knowing what your audience wants or needs depends on a finely tuned ear. Listening is the first rule of meaningful communication.

Curate—Vala Afshar promotes others’ content above his own. Finding, filtering and adding value to third-party content is a service your audiences will value. I promise.

Reciprocate—Ted Rubin applies honest to goodness human qualities to his social engagement. He follows you back. He says thank you. He looks you in the eye digitally.

Keep it in check—true thought leaders self correct. They keep their ego in check and reel it in when they’ve gone astray. They really want to make it about you, not themselves.

Believe me: I recognise the potential irony of my writing these words from what perhaps you’ll see as my own starry-eyed perch. I write this blog out of habit, for practice, to test ideas, and, frankly, for fun. I write it for you, but also for me.

I can only hope that it’s more about you than about me, but none of us is fully immune. We can only live by a set of principles and consciously try to do better.

By Jake Sorofman - Digital Marketing Analyst, Gartner

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