I could have called this exorcism but that is perhaps too stark for me.
Yet I am talking about an exorcism here. Of a spirit that may have infiltrated us more than we realise. The spirit to exorcise is thought-leadership.
OK so I’m breaking my own rule of one-word titles but this is now concatenated rather than a portmanteau. And departing a little from the sincerest adulation of our key workers fighting for us against COVID-19.
This is more for all of us other non-key worker types. The questionable masses I guess we’ve now become.
We’ve been living in thought-leadership times for a while now. TED, YouTube, conferences, authors and the like. Heck, I’ve even been given that title by others and for a while, liked it. And then used it and then had a reaction to it that wasn’t so favourable.
It’s (thought-leadership) been somewhat maligned before COVID-19 and then the clever, virtuous and kind man Simon Terry posted this tweet.
And his own post on things here. Where he rightly points out that much of thought leadership is
“…a careful packaging of self-evident platitudes.”
AKA getting clicks and air-time for stating the bleedin’ obvious.
I don't want to overly demonise even those self-anointed thought-leaders. I’m sure most are doing ‘it’ because they see good that could come from their models, packages and thoughts. And there’s bound to be some having their ‘reality TV star’ moment in the spotlight (quite literally in the case of TED.com talks).
Simon’s blog post calls for an end to thought followership; and to the creation of self-governing communities of action. Well, that gets my vote!
I’ve just had an exchange with someone about podcasts and whilst these are also vehicles for thought-leaders to share their wares, we’ve just agreed that there needs to be more from teams; the so-called followers. So he’s going to do it. Starting with #TeamPTHR so what an honour that is.
And Simon’s closing lines are this:
So what movement are you starting today? Just remember don’t start with the blogpost, the talk or the book, start with action.
I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I recently talked about a ‘movement’ and said ‘what does it ACTUALLY DO?’ and I was meaning to be provocative and challenging. Of course, this group was cathartic for members, issued a fair bit of ‘thought leadership’ and some side projects had emerged. It was a self-governing community but of little action (from my point of view).
And I’ve been disappointed by lots of communities I’ve been involved in who either:
- Wanted to become an alternative ‘organisation’ but with carbon copy aspirations and game-plans to the traditional enterprises of the world. So I left them.
- Tried to set up my own alternative community-based enterprise. But people didn’t want to play actively like that and many were happy it was a cosy echo-chamber of like-minded types.
- Were alternative enterprises but impossible to get into; with their own quirky systems and ways (including even their own internal ‘currency’ which was ‘spent’ by each other but worthless anywhere else).
- Were networks and collections that eventually became playthings for the founders whose egos ballooned in the adulation adorned on them by the group members.
- And large-scale networks which were so chaotic once the initial buzz dissipated somewhat, their lack of doing ultimately led to their de-magnetism and they withered and died.
So action really is key. I don’t come out as a pragmatist in many psychometrics (no surprise their accuracy isn’t all its cracked up to be huh?) but I am SO deflated when thoughts don’t turn into actions I actually get angry. What a waste of good thinking.
Of course, we can all do something if we want to or have an urge to do something, so this lack of action is perhaps down to either 2 things:
- The thinking or thought-leadership isn’t powerful enough to actually entice people to act;
- It is about things that are very complex and people lose interest because they can’t see what they should or could do to advance the thought-leadership into action.
Thought-leadership then rarely overcomes those two major dissipating qualities.
So why do we watch and share so much of it?
It could be the ‘consume and click salvation’ we all feel where we like a post; share a charities plight to fundraise without ACTUALLY doing any real thing.
It could be because we’re excitedly hijacked by the hype and haven’t sussed out it’s vague, platitudes of the bleedin’ obvious and there’s possibly nothing to actually act on.
It could be because a form of intellectual superiority and snobbery comes in and we want to show we’re above all that Love Island dross (which is though, dross).
I think I’m guilty of all these. So I’m publicly apologising for that.
I’m also guilty of aspiring to want to be a thought leader. Then wised-up. But it took time because it was alluring and seductive and played to the ego-demons we all have.
I’m guilty of using a lot of thought-leaders stuff. And then it was found wanting and I had to pivot, adapt and sack it off even. So I’m sorry if you were on the rather flustered end of that in my salaried and consulting interventions.
I’m CERTAINLY guilty of adulation of those thought leaders. I had replaced pop stars and actors with thought leaders. Ooops, sorry about that too folks.
Now. I’m over them. Because many of them have disappeared as soon as this viral tragedy happened. Disappearing into their now unbooked diaries to rescue their position as a thought leader and maybe some are now realising just how useless their stuff was. Some have tried to overcompensate by issuing something or other and offering to be virtually present to an event no-one now wanted.
Doing is what counts.
Now an argument for thinking. Not thought leadership. Thinking. To act without a modicum of thinking might be irresponsible; so I’m not for chaotic acts of random doing just to buck this trend and cleanse yourself as part of the exorcism. Thinking is much needed in such challenging times. Thinking and sharing your thoughts is also needed. So there’s no need to signal the end of leading with thought.
It’s the doing then that counts and acting on those thoughts.
As Simon Terry said, those thought leaders are often telling stories of companies they have no direct links to. And I’m also guilty of that. I use it to illustrate my hypothesis or even to back up a concept that I feel is relevant to correct an ill in our current systems of work. I am increasingly extolling the virtues of those who are a part of my own client work. Not to show off, but to talk about Salford City Council over Spotify; to talk about Widen over Haier (because I have direct experience and action in their story of alternative ways of working).
But the crucial thing is most of my time IS in the doing space. I talk on stages and podcasts because I’m asked to, I love it and I want to share messages of hope, alternatives and actions OTHERS can take. I don’t want to talk about a military, academic, or sporting example that doesn’t translate at all into work.
Talking of academics, I think for some thought-leaders in this world, there is also some mirror-holding-up needed in your game. Lab experiments are one thing; real-world application might be another. When was the last time you led a team of 30,000 trying to recalibrate their business overnight?
Anyway, as Simon said (!) self-directed communities of action are where the real thinking AND doing is coming to life. This is not a post to ignore virtuous, decisive and humane leadership -they are all great qualities in situations where the community invites and requires it.
A headset mic, a nice 2x2 and a story of a hero organisation aren’t enough anymore. I hope we’re about to see real people, telling their stories and displacing the ‘performers’. I’d happily step aside or be part of a duet with those who DESERVE the spotlight and the red circle carpeting.
My team are a joy to work with and in November of 2019 — you know when we could still be in the same room and very close to each other — they (well Broch and Emily mainly) organised our very first event: All about the rise of Agile ways of handling change, people and organisation design/development. We called it Juggling Agile — The Art of Transforming Work. And I was thinking about the ‘performers’ at that event. Real people; real stories and not one thought leader. And it was the best event I’ve ever been to.
That’s not bragging, that’s what it was. Immensely enlightening, inspiring and useful and stacked full of those ‘real’ people not talking about anything other than the things they’d achieved. There were even tears when the epic Sam Betts from Salford City Council talked about their amazing work with vulnerable young people working on Agile Squads. And Robert Ordever and OC Tanner’s amazing research into the things leaders do that stifles agility. And Lynn Demeda and her sterling work at Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Trust HR and unearthing some ‘rough diamonds’ in her team. And more.
Anyway, the point of this is we aren’t seeing the thought leaders right now when we might need some wisdom, calming words and potential models for the future we have no idea we’ll be with once the COVID-19. That may be because of being sensitive, it may because they’re wrestling with their conference slots being wiped out by cancellations. Or it may be that they don’t have a convenient model, theory or story to tell.
So when this is over, let’s have conferences slots dedicated to people like Sam, Robert and Lynn and my team there. Not me. I’ll help script, maybe introduce them and summarise their amazing contributions.
Thought leaders — good on stage though they are — may well be best as coaches, writers and helpers for the real people— the doers. They’ll have to take a backseat, be off stage and let the true heroes take the stage.
I would like to think that when this is over, as in COVID-19, and without glamorising the aftermath at all, we can celebrate those amazing feats being undertaken by key workers. Conferences up and down the country will not hear from any thought leaders, but the real doers. About how they planned in adversity; how they pushed through their own pain; how they took decisions and acted in an agile, responsive and humane way.
And we’ll hear the thunderous applause as we’re wiping away our tears as they will have been the ones who rescued us all.
We’ll reinvent conferences; banish thought leaders to backstage and bring out front and centre those key workers who have truly done the work of their lives in protecting and preserving ours.
That’s my thought to lead you with. And never again will I ever allow myself or anyone else be called a thought leader. We’re not worthy. Those key workers are the true thought leaders and we will reclaim that name to showcase their valour, honour and defiant acts of compassion and dedication.