This article, “The Rise of the Thought Leader”, was circulating widely on my social media feeds of late. In short, it argues that:
- The “super-rich” in America are supporting “thought leaders” who push narratives that are favourable to their business interests. In no other sector than technology is this more evident. Technological evangelism spurs investment, which perpetuates the cycle of success for technology companies. Intellectually, are we being captured by vested interests?
- These “thought leaders” are attractive to mass readers because their messages tend to be simple and evangelical – they “develop their own singular lens to explain the world”. This is in comparison to public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum, as well as independent academic intellectuals, who traffic in “complexity and criticism”.
- One of the key worldviews of these “thought leaders” is that “extreme wealth and the channels by which it was obtained are not only legitimate but heroic.” This supports a ‘Great Man’ theory of events, which traditional public and academic intellectuals tend to reject (I gather they put more weight on culture, institutions, luck).
- The decline in public and philanthropic funding for think-tanks has allowed them to be increasingly captured by political interests. Their new sponsors are “less interested in supporting intellectually prestigious, nonpartisan work than they are in manufacturing political support for their preferred ideas.”
What does this mean for you and I?
This article picks one side of the story and chases it down with scathing arguments. It is deliberately unbalanced. It does not mention any benefits of this new generation of “thought leaders”. For example, there is much for traditional intellectual institutions to learn from new “thought leaders” on how to makes their ideas accessible to the average joe. Sheryl Sandberg is such an effective communicator because she knows how to speak to the heart of her audience, not just to their minds. She knows how to inject the right amount of vulnerability and confidence, while traditional intellectuals seem to speak from high horses.
Nevertheless, I understand the point of this article. When people visit the Valley, they typically want to talk to the “oracles” – successful venture capitalists, serial start-up founders, tech giants – hoping that they will catch an insight that will help them transform their perspective, or business. Even when I was in Singapore, events by technology superstars were oversubscribed. Institutions pay thousands of dollars to engage “thought leaders”.
I am not saying that what these folks have to offer is not valuable – all of us should be seeking to expand our perspectives by reading, listening, and networking. But often we put so much weight on what these successful people have to say that we fail to take our own ideas and perspectives seriously. If we cannot articulate our own perspectives, can we deeply interact with what these people are saying? Can we deliberately choose to reject some and accept others, or are we stuck at the level of repeating their quotes to each other, as if it is accepted wisdom?
The article suggests that the problem is thought leaders themselves (and the institutions that back them), but I think an associated problem lies within our personal control. As institutions and individuals, we need to be “thought leaders” in our own right – articulating clearly what we know, what we believe, our theory of change, our lens by which we view the world. Personally, writing this blog has made me a better learner; it helped me to separate the fluff from the substance and understand that I had a voice in this conversation – I was not a passive absorber of ideas. If more of us can articulate this, we can have better, deeper conversations, and we will not be captured by evangelical ideas that may have little relevance to what we are trying to achieve.
Ultimately, inequality has many shapes and forms. One of the characteristics of inequality is that it is self-perpetuating. The rich fortify their riches, the poor get left behind. Intellectual thought can have a similar dynamic. Those who talk a lot get affirmation and attention, which boosts their confidence. Those who underestimate their value lose confidence and become passive listeners. One of the ways to fight this is a democratization of ideas, where everyone feels their voice matters – because it does. This is why I encourage folks to write guest articles on my blog.
How do I start?
Many people have asked me how I started writing. The first step I took was admitting to myself that I knew something. No one knows everything, but everyone knows something. Think about your experiences at work, in school, in the home. Those are unique, and capture many valuable lessons for others. Those experiences have also shaped you and given you a lens by which you can approach a part of the world you want to understand more about.
For me, one of the lenses I view technology is through the problems I worked on for many years before I started in this field: equality in access to public services, sustainable financing, good governance, building communities. These were a jumping point for me to start learning and writing about technology. I also write about topics like leadership and change management, which I thought deeply about in the course of my work.
You may be thinking of writing your first article or making your first podcast, but you may not know where to start. If this is you, reach out to me via the “Contact” button. I’d love to help you think about how to get started, and walk with you on the way. The commitment you have to make is that within 2 weeks you will write your first article! I promise it is possible.