As I was following some of the ILTA ’09 Conference chatter, I read something from David Hobbie that caught my attention. David was quoting Kevin O’Keefe‘s comment of “thought leaders will blog because of their insatiable desire to learn.” I thought that was a pretty good quote, so I retweeted it with a comment of “(so true!)”. Within a few minutes, Jeff Gordon (the licensing handbook guy, not the racer) challenged me on that saying that he thinks “thought leaders will COMMENT when they want to learn. Blogging isn’t learning (even if you have to do research).”

This had me scrambling to make sure that my definition of ‘Thought Leader’ was correct. [I’d hate to be the guy from Princess Bride yelling “Inconceivable!”] So, I quickly went to Wikipedia and got the definition:

Thought Leader – A person who is recognized among peers and mentors for innovative ideas and demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable distilled insights.

My definition was a little simpler: “A person who comes up with some good ideas, and like spaghetti, throws them against a wall to see what sticks.”
In my retweet I was thinking that the blog could equal the wall, and the sticking would be the ability for the thought leader’s ideas to stand up to the comments of his or her readership. In a way, you could think of it as a “quasi peer-review” process. A great example of this would be my co-blogger Toby Brown’s post on GMail and Privilege. Toby threw his ideas of what happens when you combine legal ethics rules against a Terms of Service agreement from an email service provider. He tossed out his interpretation on the blog (for God and everyone to see), and found that his peers both agreed and challenged him on his interpretation.
Jeff is correct in that Thought Leaders do tend to ‘comment’ more than they teach on their blog, but in a way they are challenging their readership to either accept their comments as a great innovative idea, or to point out the flaws in their ideas. In the “old days” we would have to meet them face-to-face or write them letters or emails to engage in the discussion. Those conversations, however, would be limited to the audience in attendance or would simply be a one-on-one conversation. With blogs, those leaders can be engaged in multi-party conversations over a period of time.
Now, I might be stretching the definition of “Thought Leader” slightly (or in Toby’s case… enormously!), but I do think that blogs are an excellent platform for though leaders to discuss their ideas and generate feedback from their peers. If you fall under my loose definition of “thought leader”, I expect to see some spaghetti sticking on the walls of your blog.
  • Thank you for bringing this to a blog post rather than trying to have the full conversation in Twitter. 🙂

    I don't completely disagree with your supposition that some bloggers are thought leaders (regardless of the definition), and that the reverse is also true, that thought leaders tend to be bloggers. Rather, I think that to be a real thought leader, you need to do more than just throw your ideas up onto the wall for others to comment on… you need to comment on OTHER people's thoughts, too.

    My response about comments wasn't meant to say that bloggers aren't using their blogs to teach, but to stand on a soap-box… but to say that I thought that thought leaders need to comment on other people's blogs and not just post their own stuff on their own site.

    In other words, if you're simply standing in your own cave, shouting at the walls (blogging), I don't think that makes you a thought leader. If, on the other hand, you visit other caves to share your message with those caves' inhabitants, then I would see you as a thought leader.

  • I really like your looser definition of "thought leadership". However, I don't care much for the term, and not necessarily because of how it's defined, but what it confers – a pseudo cult-like status that many follow and few question.

    More distasteful, is the hypocrisy that often accompany these sage offerings – Even Wikipedia includes "actionable" in it's definition.

    In a recent article I equated a narrow definition of "thought leaders" with "Twitter evangelists" and although not the most fluid of examples, I was attempting to voice my own experience and many others who have shared with me, this largely unchallenged "do as I say, not as I do" exhortations by those who don't hold themselves to the very standards championed.

    I saw your tweet quoting O'Keefe with the (so true) comment, let it go and planned on revisiting later but this spot-on post begged commentary and, in fact, confirms your contention that blogs are indeed an excellent platform for such discussions.

  • I think a related point is that you don't confer thought leadership on yourself. Others confer that status on you, as demonstrated by the velocity your ideas get among your peers in whatever community of interest you operate in. It seems rather unlikely, however, that you will ever gain that respect without engaging in a back-and-forth exchange with those same peers.

  • Good post. I agree with Aaron, the label ‘thought-leader’ is conferred. However, whether a thought-leader uses her blog to develop new theories or uses the comment section of other blogs to develop new ideas, this is a matter of preference.

    For example, I use my firm’s blog to educate our audience (primarily the small business community). It would not be appropriate for me to use that blog to propose new theories or stretch old theories.

    Instead, I use the comment section of other blogs as my forum for change. (Note, I do not consider myself a thought-leader. However, I believe I have a duty to the profession to contribute intellectual capital.)

    I find the blogs that are geared toward lawyers, encourage a dialogue between the blogger and the readers. I enjoy exploring new ideas with other bloggers.

    Also, you raise a very good moral question. Why do you blog? You are suggesting that we should blog (or comment) with a purpose—and of course, the purpose should be for the advancement of our legal community. I agree.

  • Great post Greg – love the spaghetti comment. I think that a thought leader emerges as someone who starts the compelling conversation, encourages feedback and other ideas, and continues to put themselves out there for the development of the community and the ideas driving the communal response.

    As to Jeff's comment, to blog does not make one a leader in thought, (there is plenty of drivel out there), but blogging is one of the more powerful tools that a thought leader can use to have a conversation with others on a subject.

    Now the difference to me in a blog v. a forum is that the blog is more of a soapbox – the blogger invites you to their party; you are a guest commenting in the conversation about what they wrote and the original post and blogger remain the focus of the dialogue. A forum discussion is more of a level playing field: regardless of who started the thread it is the topic itself that plays host and everyone is a guest in the discussion.