Questions & answers around thought leadership

A few weeks ago I answered the daily thought leadership countdown questions that were posed by the TEDxLibrariansTO conference. I enjoyed the process, forcing myself to respond to thoughtful and interesting questions every day, even on busy challenging days where I wouldn't normally make an effort to find the time for blogging.

However, since they were all branded with "TEDxLibrarians" name in the title, I don't think people who weren't attending the conference bothered to read them. As such, several of the posts had unusually low readership.

So I;m gathering them all here in the hopes that those that missed them first time around might enjoy them this time.

The original TEDx posts can be found here and my responses here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.


Question 1: Name one thing we could do right now in order to be perceived as thought leaders outside the profession.

My Answer: Predictably, perhaps, I'll answer that we should mostly (but not completely) stop attending and presenting at librarian conferences and instead attend and present at the conferences our community members attend and present at. For academic librarians, this means attending disciplinary conferences as well as conferences on curriculum and pedagogy in higher education.

Check out my Manifesto for more.

Question 2: How do we recognize a thought leader?

My Answer: I'm not sure if this means recognize as in identify or recognize as in reward and acknowledge.

For the former, I think we need to try and track which librarians are embedded in their communities and making a difference in a way that really reflects the values of librarianship. In other words, for an academic librarian, say, a thought leader would be someone who blogs at a general higher education site, like Barbara Fister.

For the latter, let's invite them to write and talk about their experiences at the librarian conferences we do attend and in the blogs and journals we read.

Question 3: Are the loudest voices online actually representative of important thought currents?

My Answer: Sometimes yes and sometimes no. This one is really hard to quantify in anything other than an anecdotal sense.

My tendency here is to encourage and develop a healthy skepticism about those loudest online voices, to try and understand where they are coming from, what their goals are, what their biases are, who they represent and what's in it for them.

In other words, I try and bring librarian values to bear on that particular question.

I also recognize and understand that the most valuable voices are often the quietest and that we should try and pay attention to the less hype-ridden corners of the online world as much as to the busiest part.

Question 4: What should we expect/demand of our thought leaders?

I'm not sure I like the way this question is phrased, preferring something like, "What do thought leaders actually do?" We certainly shouldn't demand anything of our thought leaders, it's not like we're paying them to do their jobs. Even "expectations" seems like a strong word.

To a large extent, thought leaders just are. I'm not sure we can speak of "followers" having "expectations" of leaders in the same way we could in a more traditional organizational or institutional context.

So what do I "expect" of a thought leader? To just continue to be themselves.

In my experience, thought leaders that become too conscious of their status as thought leaders, who pander to who they perceive as their followers, well, they become parodies of themselves.

Question 5: We can't all be thought leaders all the time. Often, by necessity we are followers. So, what does it mean to follow a thought leader well?

Once again, this question makes me a bit uncomfortable.

The only thing I want to say here is that I don't think we should follow "thought leaders" in the same sense that we would follow our bosses or political leaders.

We respect thought leaders by listening to their ideas, critically evaluating them and judging whether or not adopting or advancing those ideas makes sense in our own context. These are the values that librarians promote in our own practice so we should walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

Question 6: How can experience of failure contribute to making an effective thought leader?

Failure is useful for a thought leader in the same way that it's useful for everyone. We can learn a lot from our failures: how to dust ourselves off and start over, how to rethink what we've done before and learn from our mistakes, how to put what we do in a larger interpersonal, organizational and social context. After all, just as we rarely succeed alone, we also rarely fail alone. Sure, the act of failure may be uniquely our own but very often we end up dragging others down with us.

Hopefully the most important thing we can all learn from failure is a bit of humbleness. Thought leaders by definition are going to need to be confident and forthright. They are going to need the inner strength to be able to stand up and state their ideas in full view, to take their lumps and engage in vigorous debate.

But they also need to be able to see the web of interconnections between all the stakeholders their ideas may influence. They need to be honest and realistic about the value and scope of their ideas, not over-hype or over-universalize or oversell.

I'll admit to being generally quite skeptical about thought leaders in general and in particular of self-proclaimed thought leaders.

It's those thought leaders that are the most desperate to be recognized as such, who most need the accolades and attention that come with being an influential expert or important innovator -- they are the ones I instinctively distrust.

And it's often because they seem to lack a certain humbleness. It's difficult to balance confidence and humbleness, I know, but those are the thought leaders I really value.

(Am I throwing stones in a glass house here? Am I a self-proclaimed thought leader whose immense hubris has lead me to publish this delusional and ill-advised screed? I'm afraid I just can't tell. You'll have to let me know.)

Question 7: What venues are available to us to constructively criticize each others ideas?

This is a tough one as I've been involved in a few Internet scrapes myself over the years. But I'll have to go with the rough and tumble dialogue we see online in blogs and on Twitter and Friendfeed as the best places to debate and criticize each others ideas.

It can be unpleasant and angry and seemingly uncivil at times but it's the best and most honest and open forum we have.

Question 8: What are the similarities or characteristics of thought leaders that you know? Tell us about the attributes that your ideal thought leader would have.

I don't think any one person could actually have all the qualities of the idea thought leader but there are some commonalities across the ones I've encountered.

  • Originality. A thought leader needs to bring something new to the public sphere, or at very least take an established idea and present it in a fresh, original way.
  • Humbleness or Humility. A thought leader needs to be able to understand and accept their own limitations and the limitations of their ideas.
  • Vision. Not all thought leaders will have a vision of how things could be improved or changed, but most will.
  • Consistency. A thought leader needs to have a focus and not be jumping around a bunch of different ideas. While they need to be flexible and adaptable, wishy-washy probably won't work either.
  • Articulate and Accessible. They need to be able to explain their ideas clearly and concisely.
  • Domain Knowledge. A thought leader needs to actually know something and not just guess or speculate or BS.
  • Perspective. And by this I mean a kind of awareness of the scope and limitations of their ideas. They also need a solid historical context about their domain area of expertise so that they're not just repeating what others have said before. They need to understand what their ideas mean and how they apply to the world. They need to avoid any kind of false universalization and over generalization -- that's what annoys me most. I'm a grownup, I can take complexity. This is kind of where I would distinguish between a thought leader and a guru. Thought leaders are closer to what we would understand as public intellectuals -- people that really have something to offer. Whereas a guru would more likely be someone who's ideas were ultimately empty or superficial.

Question 9: What means should librarians choose to encourage their institutions to embrace change?

I'm not sure I know how to approach even beginning to answer this question other than to just say 42!

However, I was lucky enough to attend Drew Dudley's amazing keynote address at yesterday's York IT Day conference. He really talked about redefining leadership in a such a way that everyday everyone has a chance to add value to their lives and organizations. Everyone can make a difference just by being more mindful of how they conduct their everyday lives.

I really liked how he used six questions we can all ask ourselves everyday to frame his value adding strategy.

With Drew's permission, here they are:

  1. What have you done today to be helpful?
  2. What have you done today to make it more likely you will learn something?
  3. What have you done today to make it more likely someone else will learn something?
  4. Have you said something positive about someone to their face today?
  5. Have you said something positive about someone when they're not even in the room today?
  6. What have you done today to be good to yourself?

It's a start. Make a difference.

(More on the questions forthcoming in Anyone Can Make the Waitress Laugh: 'Lollipop Moments' and Redefining Leadership by Drew Dudley)

One response so far

  • Neil Craig says:

    In the interests of providing enjoyment to all thoughtful people I am posting my list of 7 questions which, if catastrophic global warming is true, will all be easy to answer in a supportive manner. If it is not a deliberate fraud # 3,4,6,7 will be easy to answer.

    I will admit that so far "scienceblogs" has lacked anybody capable of providing such answers. On the other hand it has produced a substantial number of obscenities and ad homs, proving, bith by their words and by the refusal of other alarmists tyo object to such behaviour, that the alarmist community is almost entirely corrupt. The fact that "scienceblog" authors regularly censor such questions shows how contemptous of the basic principles of science such people are.

    1 - Do you accept Professor Jones' acknowledgement that there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995?

    2 - Do you accept that the rise in CO2 has improved crop growth by around 10% & that the consequent influence on world hunger is more beneficial than any currently detectable destructive action of alleged global warming?

    3 - Do you accept that the Hockey Stick, as originally presented by Mann and the IPCC contained calculations that were inconsistent with good science and that Mann's refusal to make calculations and algorithms available for checking were inconsistent with scientific principle?

    4 - Do you accept that many claims from people and organisations on the alarmist side, from Al Gore's claim that South Sea islands had already been abandoned due to rising sea levels and Pachauri's claim that any dispute that the Himalayan glaciers will have melted by 2025 was "voodoo" were untrue and insupportable even at the time.

    5 - Do you accept that there are a number of geoengineering solutions which arithmetically can be shown would work (including stratospheric dust, the geritol solution or even just replacing CO2 burning with nuclear power) which would work at a small fraction of the cost of the war against fire, or in the case of nuclear, at negative cost?

    6 - Do you accept that the refusal of alarmists to denounce fraud or telling of obvious untruths. on their side, or even its active support or covering up, detracts from the credibility of the entire movement?

    7 - Of the alleged "consensus" - can you name 2 scientists, out of the roughly 60%, worldwide who are not paid by the state, who support catastrophic warming & if not can you explain how something can be a consensus when no member of a subset of 60% of the alleged consenting, consent?

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