On David Brooks' Indictment of Thought Leadership

Who in thought leadershipland would have believed that a national newspaper columnist (David Brooks of The New York Times) would indict our profession in 800 satirical words yesterday? (I thought our uncharted island would remain undiscovered by the national media.)

Who would have thought critics would instantly stick their linguistic knives into the columnist, claiming he himself was a phony “thought leader” of the type that he harangued? (Not me. Didn’t think it would get personal this quickly.)

And who would have thought the discussion would get so venal? (Again, not me. Yes, it really is venal, with critics pointing to Brooks’ pending divorce, conservative views and the silly-sounding Yale course he is teaching, titled “Humility.”)

But there it is. His column (“The Thought Leader”) is here. Here's the gist of his argument: People who try to make their livings from being "thought leaders" are "highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddlers" who have little to say but get paid a lot to say it. At the end of their careers, they're relegated to a life of anonymity.

Here is some of the feedback he's gotten:

  • Charles Pierce's article in Esquire (negative)
  • Matthew Yglesias' commentary in Slate.com (negative)
  • New York magazine’s piece by Joe Coscarelli (negative) 
  • Josh Barro's view in Business Insider (positive)

My take? I'm one part confused. A number of people are trying to figure out who Brooks is writing about. Paul Krugman, a liberal counterpoint on The Times' op-ed pages? Alas, we may never know. (I'm not holding my breath. Hey, I've waited 40 years for Carly Simon to reveal her target in “You’re So Vain.”)

I'm another part miffed. If Brooks intended to broadly indict those who make a career out of being an expert in some domain, he’s out of line. Certainly, there are many self-appointed “thought leaders” who are empty suits. We don’t have much patience for these types. But there are serious craftsmen and craftswomen who take the role of becoming a deep expert in their domain quite seriously. We love working with these folks.

Finally, I'm another part happy. Great to see the practice of thought leadership featured in a highly read column in a world-famous newspaper (2 million paid circulation, print + online). We know that people like Michael Porter, Peter Drucker, Seth Godin and Michael Hammer have had profound impacts on business and society. And we know from experience that aspiring thought leaders ultimately rise to their level of substance or vacuousness. No amount of speaking, book writing, and blogging can paper over lack of serious insights.

The audience of these so-called “Thought Leaders” is too smart for that.

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