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The Perils of Thought Leadership

Originally published March 18, 2010

The position of thought leader is open to anyone. If you become a thought leader, you may appear on the Oprah Winfrey show, you may get paid thousands of dollars for personal appearances, and you may be famous. Life is easy and sweet. Or so it seems. The reality is that being a thought leader is a lot more difficult than it seems.

But, first things first. How does one become a thought leader? There are a lot of time-honored ways to become a thought leader, including:

  • Write a blog
  • Write a book
  • Write a column in a magazine
  • Write a lot of articles
  • Speak at conferences
  • Teach classes
  • Conduct seminars

In fact, most gurus do a number of these activities. And, furthermore, these activities have to be done over a long period of time in order to attract a large following.

If you are lucky and you are good and the concept you are espousing is different and valid, you may become an official industry thought leader. Vendors call you up and ask your opinion. You are interviewed. You get paid honorariums for attending conferences. People want to start using your name. Life is good.

But just when you think you have it made and start to put your feet back and enjoy the good life, suddenly everything comes to a halt. The phone stops ringing. The conferences suddenly have all the speakers they need. Editors no longer invite you out for lunch. Magazines are off to the next hot topic. What happened?

Actually, there are many pitfalls to being a thought leader. You may work to the point where life is good but it doesn’t stay good for very long. There are people out there that want to take away the spoils of thought leadership. And you find that these people have many ways of removing you from your loft as a guru. It is not just one thing that has happened. There are a lot of things that have happened, including:

The imitators have landed. Being a thought leader means you have been advancing some concept. Concepts are not legally protected property. You suddenly find that the world’s collection of the concept plagiarists have discovered you. This pack of hyenas does everything they can do to make sure that the world forgets that it was you that developed and espoused the concept. If it is a good and valid concept, then the concept plagiarists have tricks in their bag that you have never heard of, all intended to bring them into the spotlight, not you. Suddenly it is the concept plagiarist who is invited to the Oprah Winfrey show, not you. And if you think that people remember that you were the originator of the concept, forget it. Your mother and your wife will remember, but no one else.

Loss of platform. Every thought leader has a platform. Sometimes it is a book that has been written. Sometimes it is a column that is written. Sometimes it is a conference that the thought leader attends and speaks at. But whatever it is, the platform is the means by which the thought leader gains and maintains public attention. Often, platforms disappear. Perhaps someone else has courted the publisher. Perhaps the conference is sold or merges with another conference. Perhaps the book stops selling. For a hundred different reasons, platforms disappear. And when the platform disappears, the thought leader has a finite amount of time before he or she is a “has been” thought leader. It simply is essential that a thought leader have a stable, manageable, permanent platform.

The concept ages, or is adopted to the point that everyone does it and no one wants to hear about it anymore. As long as the concept is new and exciting, people are interested. But concepts have a life cycle, and thought leaders fail to understand that when they begin their journey. In order to be a long term thought leader, the basic concept that the thought leader espouses needs to be constantly reinvented.

Along the same lines as concepts aging, competing concepts come along and displace the original concept. In some cases, this is merely the law of the jungle. Someone has a better concept. The competing concept takes over market share and soon the original concept only has a small group of advocates. In other cases, the competing concept is not a true displacement, but the competing architecture has “glitz” or sex appeal. In this case, the thought leader has to carefully explain the value of the original concept.

Hardware and software vendors co-opt the concept. Worse than the hyenas of concept plagiarists is the gaggle of vultures known as vendors, especially hardware and software vendors. If a concept is powerful, it is a short amount of time before the hardware and software vendors co-opt the concept. Vendors are looking for any way they can find in order to sell their product. If they can convince the consumer that they support the concept that has caught the attention of the consumer with their product, then they will use the concept as a battering ram. They will do this even when there is no relationship between their product and the concept. As long as it sells, use the concept and to heck with the truth. In many cases, the vendor will bastardize the concept as long as the concept meets the need of the vendor and is useful to make sales. And the first thing the vendor will do is to forget the thought leader. The vendor will not only take credit for the concept, but the vendor will try to divorce the thought leader from the concept in the eyes of the consumer – especially if the concept is good and useful and really popular.

So life is full of pitfalls for the thought leader. It is hard enough to become a thought leader, but it is even harder to remain one. And the hardest part of all is having to live on the same planet as the concept plagiarist and the vendors of the world who freely take and use the conceptual ground plowed by someone else.

  • Bill InmonBill Inmon

    Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations.

    Editor's Note: More articles, resources and events are available in Bill's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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Comments

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Posted March 18, 2010 by Neil Raden nraden@hiredbrains.com

A few weeks ago, one of your coauthors told me that "Data warehousing and BI have been very good to me and I want to give something back." I was not only impressed with her altruism I was proud to be part of an industry of people who were so noble.

Then I read your piece, a self-serving whine about how anyone who traded in data warehousing was a plagiarist hyena. This is a concept that you you've milked and monetized for decades and, frankly, did.a fair amount of "borrowing" yourself. In 2001, you sat in the front row while I gave a presentation I called "Data Warehouse 2.0." Do you remember that? Heck, the whole concept of data warehousing was something you fashioned while standing on the shoulders of giants.

Bill, of you want to be a thought leader again, you have to lead. Come up with something new and useful. Real thought leaders, by the way, aren't afraid to escape their legacy. 

-NR

 

 

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