It’s irreverent of me, I know, but every time I see the phrase “thought leader,” I picture our neighborhood dog-walker grasping a handful of leashes, each of them attached not to a local canine, but to some unruly idea that needs to be dragged about on a tether. OK, this is probably a case of too much caffeine and sugar donuts. My imagination is getting weirder year by year.
But really, who leads thoughts? I would like to think that thoughts lead us, not the other way around. But please don’t quote me on that. I dread the day we have to create a new Jargon Finder entry for the phrase “thought-led.” (Can’t you see it now? “The Foundation has created a dynamic new, strategic, outcome-oriented, research-based, thought-led program …” Oh, Heaven spare us.)
Of course I realize that the people who use “thought leader” usually fancy themselves as leading other people’s thoughts, not their own. These are folks who believe (don’t we all?) that they have a few really first-class thoughts that deserve to cut straight to the front of the parade. Read enough annual reports and strategic plans, and you’ll find that the number of self-anointed Thought Leaders in this country exceeds the number of actual thoughts by a factor of 10.
To learn the origin of this vainglorious little phrase, I went to Wikipedia. There, the definition begins “Thought leader is a buzzword or article of jargon …” an opening that instantly confirmed I had gone to the right source. The Wiki author goes on to explain that “thought leader” was invented in the 1990s to describe people “who had contributed new thoughts” to business, the sciences, humanities, and other fields.
Now, I’m old enough to remember when we used to call these people “leaders,” or sometimes “innovators.” But evidently, somewhere along the way, it became necessary to specify that certain leaders and innovators (but apparently not all of them) actually think thoughts. Now, there’s an innovation for you!
It’s as if Rodin’s famous sculpture suddenly sat upright, snapped open a laptop, and began typing, “Thinkers of the World Unite!” (Later, I suppose, he’d go on to post it on a blog.)