What Exactly is a ‘Thought Leader’?

Let me be straight with you. I don’t really warm to this recent addition to our popular language.

Before I explain why, I am happy to concede that like most ideas, there’s a positive intent behind it.

For instance, a ‘thought leader’ is someone who brings new thinking, evolutionary or revolutionary insight into play. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this because we know that well before such a title were in existence, humans have been thinking creatively ever since we lived in caves.

I can almost imagine the scene.  Two cavemen in loin cloths with one saying to the other, “you know what, you’re a ‘thought leader’ you are!”

I wonder the reaction they would have received, maybe, “what are you going on about George? I just happen to think this is a better way to build a fire…’thought leader’, right”!

So why do I see another point of view?  Well…

…How many people truly lead thought or are they really led by their thoughts?

Out of the tens of thousands of people I have met and worked with in nearly 50 years of being on the planet, I’ve met very few who can lead thought.

In fact, from psychological and neuroscience perspectives, the opposite is true because of human brain design; almost everyone is led by thought.

What’s the difference?

Being led by thought and leading thought are two very different states.

One way to experience this is to take two minutes of your time, gaze into the distance and notice what your brain does, where it moves and into what stories, judgements, fantasies and beliefs it pulls you into.

You probably know a lot about this from an experience such as travelling into work.

As you drive, sit on the bus or train, your mind will, by its own volition and mostly outside of your control, jump into a series of random thoughts such as:

  • concerns about an up-coming meeting
  • how badly the football team played last night
  • the bills that need to be paid
  • someone at work/a neighbour/a politician that is getting on your nerves
  • how you’d like a bit more time and space to be yourself
  • the holiday you so desperately want
  • the car that’s overdue for a service but there’s not much spare money to pay for it.

The list is endless.

What does science say about thought?

In a recent Harvard study, they found that at least 50% of all thoughts are either past or future based and most of those thoughts aren’t fresh, innovative creations. Instead they tend to be rehashed, repetitions of thoughts we’ve already had.

This begins to make sense especially when you consider that all past thoughts, by their nature of being in the past, are not new or innovative.

What about the other 50%?

The other 50% of thoughts will be made up of two other types.

    • Thoughts, facts, judgments and stories about something or someone outside of you (including, your loved ones, colleagues, neighbours, people you don’t know/collide with, work, money, God, religions, politics, etc).

These are sometimes described as ‘You thoughts’ because they are outside of you.

    • Thoughts, facts, judgments and stories about yourself of which there are two slightly different types. A thought that makes you better, superior, more knowledgeable, more successful, fitter, slimmer etc, than someone else (or more of a ‘thought leader’ than someone else!) A thought that makes you inferior or inadequate in some way. Not smart enough, slim enough, respected enough or less of a ‘thought leader’ perhaps!

These are sometimes described as ‘Me thoughts’ because they are about ourselves.

A harsh reality

Make a brief study of how often you are caught up in ‘past’, ‘future’, ‘me’ or ‘you’ thoughts and you begin to realise there is very little time or creative space given over to fresh innovative thinking.

If you’re still not convinced, imagine the following test: For 24 hours, everyone’s internal dialogue (the voice in their head) would play out loud.

Imagine the repercussions. We would all have to acknowledge how little control we have over our thoughts, judgments and stories. We would be embarrassed about how our thoughts control us and not the other way around.

Visionary thinking

This is a term I slightly prefer. In fact, the man who created the model that depict the four movements of the mind, Dr Richard Moss is sometimes described as one.

Authentic visionary thinkers have learned how to operate outside of these 4 types of thought. It doesn’t mean they don’t use them, it means they don’t get caught up in their repetitions so much. They are not so plagued by a thought-led mind.

And then in the clear space outside of a chattering mind, something new, innovative and inspirational appears.

For an inspirational and uplifting film, including interviews with three visionary thinkers (Richard Moss, Deepak Chopra and Father Thomas Keating) check out the video below.

Glenn Bracey

Glenn Bracey

Glenn is the co-founder and inspirational learning and performance director of Future Vision. He is a trainer, coach, conference speaker and passionate advocate of developing learning that makes a tangible difference to your business, its people and customers.

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