The term thought leader has crossed my path a few times in the last week, and each time, I feel a twinge of pain deep in my soul. Wikipedia explains, “Thought leader is business jargon for an entity that is recognized by peers for having innovative ideas. Thought leaders often publish articles and blog posts on trends and topics influencing an industry.”
I’m not sure why the term rubs the wrong way so much. Earlier this week on Facebook, I posted that I want to stab the term with a pointy wooden stake. And later, a friend on the site posted about an email he got that used the term. I commented that I want to vomit each time I hear it. The reaction is quite visceral.
I suppose part of my problem with the term is simply the use of the word leader, which is a far overused term in American society–a shapeless term that is supposed to be everything that we seek in people (everyone must aspire to be a leader!). Leader and leadership are words that people use in so many vastly different ways that they come to mean anything and thus nothing. People claim that it is possible, indeed desirable, to have an entire organization of leaders, for instance, even though conceptually it seems paradoxical since leaders lead while everyone else follows. If everyone is leading, who is following?
In another way, the term also does that kind of violence to language that is the hallmark of business jargon. It at once displaces perfectly valid and pre-existing terms that mean the same thing (intellectual or thinker, for instance) while spinning the idea in a way that positions it squarely in a safely neutral way. Of course, this kind of milquetoast language is hardly as neutral as people pretend it is. To be a thought leader instead of an intellectual, for example, is about rejecting the idea that intellectuals are smart and therefore potentially seen as elitest. A thought leader, in contrast, is supposed to be a populist figure, just like any average person.
As with other aspects of the business world, this term also traffics in the idea of innovation simply for the novelty of change. A thought leader is someone who can show everyone else something new to pursue, regardless of whether that change is necessary, desirable, or even not detrimental to the existing set up.
As someone else on Facebook commented to my friend’s post, “Take me to your thought leader.” Indeed.