What is a thought leader?
If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself going down a rabbit hole searching for the definitive answer. There is no shortage of opinion on what it means to be a thought leader. And still, we are suspicious, rightfully so, when someone calls themselves a “thought leader.” Used as self-description, the moniker evokes haughtiness and hubris.
I suggest that the more interesting question is: What is thought leadership? We get to the heart of the matter when we change the noun to a verb and consider not what a thought leader is, but what thought leadership does.
As Dr. Steve Nguyn wrote in Workplace Psychology, a self-focused ambition to “be” a thought leader often results in little more than putting “old wine into new bottles” and claiming it is new wine.
“For these individuals,” Nguyn said, “their notion of thought leadership is pouring old wine into a new bottle and calling it new wine. Giving themselves the label of being a thought leader and selling this idea to others adds to their pseudo-credibility.”
If anyone is a thought leader, then everyone is, or at least can be. Within anyone is the potential to “act with thought leadership” and in so doing, even in the smallest way, influence the world and make it better. These acts of influence percolate through families, generations, societies, businesses and economies. It shapes our view of the world, how we respond to the vagaries of life and the impact of “disruption” all around us.
In an increasingly uncertain world, it is as important as ever for both individuals and organizations to nurture these acts of thought leadership.
The circular economy of thought leadership
Las Vegas, the town where whatever goes on there stays there, is home of MGM Resorts International. Vegas may not bring to mind a hub of thought leadership or sustainability. But any town built in the middle of the desert on the hopes and dreams of chance and entertainment for a global clientele can actually serve as a proving ground for ideas and new ways of doing business.
Prior to the 2009 financial crisis, MGM Resorts had grown to a billion-dollar company through mergers and acquisitions, employing 62,000 people throughout its global operation. As the financial meltdown spread through 2009, however, the company was in a bad way, and one of the largest resort and gaming companies in the world was within hours of bankruptcy.
Late in 2008 Jim Murren took the reins of the company. It fell to him to shepherd the organization back to financial health. For Murren, managing a triple bottom line was a matter of survival for a corporation splintered into too many separate parts without a unifying mission.
Bringing the company back from its “near-death experience” required conventional business savvy. But MGM’s recovery is also because Murren doubled-down on its commitment to its employees and community.
In 2000, the company became the first in its industry to declare a formal, voluntary diversity initiative. Clearly, Murren understood how to create value for all stakeholders through the service profit chain.
In 2013, Corporate Responsibility Magazine named Murren as 2013 Responsible CEO of the Year. That same year, Ondra Berry came on board as senior vice president of talent and performance. Berry served nearly 25 years on the Reno police force, working his way to Assistant Chief of Police. He is also a Brigadier General with the Nevada Air National Guard and is owner and co-founder of Guardian Quest, an organization devoted to personal and organizational development.
“Everything rises or falls on good or bad leadership,” Berry told TriplePundit.
If leaders of any organization don’t “eat, breathe and sleep thinking about what’s best for their people, it will show up,” he continued. It was Murren’s leadership that drew Berry to MGM.
Good leadership begets good leadership, he added: “It’s not only who [a leader] is, but what [a leader] expects out of his executive team, and that permeates down to the organization.”
“If you take care of your employees, develop them, give them opportunities and purpose, that helps with customer service experience, which leads to better outcomes for your organization and shareholder value.”
In a “circular economy” of thought leadership, we lead by example, allow others to do the same, and all share the results.
Corporations are people, my friend
Not to trot out a stale, well-hashed debate, but no corporation exists outside a human mental construct. It’s all our collective and marginally agreed upon imagination. A corporation may claim a notion of legal status as a “person.” But obviously, a “corporation” isn’t a person. People are. And as such there is an inevitable human element to any corporation.
Individual corporate leaders may choose pursuit of short-term self-interest above all else, ignoring the human reality behind a veil of corporate identity. But it is not the only choice, nor the best choice. The former approach is manipulative; the latter is influential.
“When employees have an emotional attachment to an organization, why it exists and what’s relevant and important to it, then they’re much more engaged. They’re much more willing to be involved, give you their best ideas, give you their best effort and be relevant to what your mission is.”
Under Murren’s leadership, the culture of influence suggests that what is good for people is, in the end, good for corporations. Allow people to be their best, and they just might.
Make history or make sense
When Ondra Berry graduated from college, his grandmother told him:
“You’ve graduated, but if life isn’t better as a result of you getting this education. You’ve just made history by being the first person in our family to go to college. But you have not made sense if the world is not better as a result of what you have learned.”
It was the same lesson she had driven home throughout Berry’s formative years: “It’s one thing to make history; it’s another thing to make sense.”
Berry holds onto his grandmother’s wisdom. It has, from our perspective, inspired his sense of service and personal growth.
Berry’s career echoes another abiding moral lesson learned from his grandmother: To whom much is given, much is required.
“A big influence on me was my grandmother,” Berry said.
The lesson for us is to recognize “thought leadership” in places we may not typically expect to find it. The influence of a grandmother, the guidance of a teacher, the purposefully nurtured culture of an organization.
“I believe a leader’s responsibility is to have an influence on a person’s purpose and behaviors that drive them to the greater good, or influence them to the greater good, in society or in life,” Berry told us.
I’d guess that Ondra Berry’s grandmother never thought of herself as a thought leader, but certainly, she was. Her influence is felt today through her grandson and beyond, one part of a collective voice of human imagination and discovery of the world we inhabit.
“I really believe that once a person discovers their purpose, they then unleash the best of who they are,” Berry continued.
“We are all on a path to discovery of that. And the sooner [people] find that and come to the recognition that they have so much untapped potential inside of them, that’s when they … get laser-focused on making a contribution to the greater good.”
That is what thought leadership does.
Image credit: GuruinaBottle.com, used under creative commons license