What’s Up with Thought Leaders?

“Thought leader” is the new “big deal” label in corporate America.  I completely get the meaning of team leader or shift leader or ring leader.  Now, I admit I have entertained prurient thoughts at the beach, evil thoughts when my favorite team was unfairly refereed, and amorous thoughts over a candlelight dinner.  But, I never considered calling on a leader to herd these thoughts into better behavior.

We are in an era of risk aversion and timidity following a scary, productivity-draining recession.  Too many leaders hunker down to avoid calling attention by standing up.  They delay, differ, dilute and disguise to remain on the diet-plan payroll caused by thin margins and fierce competition.  Image too often trumps results; working hard is valued over working smart.  The safety of groups and the pretense of progress fuel way too many meetings.  Risk-averse leaders write reports; results-driven leaders pull the trigger.

So, we kid ourselves into believing we need more and/or better thoughts—smarter ideas, more insightful solutions.  MBA’s are in and ETA’s are out.  Consultants are the new blue ribbon scapegoat for ducking accountability.  “Our consultants have advised us…” triggers affirming nods from the wise ones around the boardroom table.  When was the last time you went to a large meeting at which leaders discussed and then executed rather than watch PowerPoint slides and then plan?  Plans, while important, are simply “ready-set” intentions without a “go.”

Now, before you chastise us as promulgating an era of reactive, shoot-from-the-hip decision-makers, long on swagger but short on strategy, we are major fans of thoughtful leaders.  We value leaders who appreciate the gravity of their choices and carefully ponder their wisest pursuit—one that takes into account the interests and needs of all constituents impacted.  Ego must be subjugated by pragmatic insight. But, we are seeing a lot more “ready-aim, ready-aim, ready-aim” these days than we see the mercurial “ready-fire-aim.”

Business has never had a shortage of thoughts—brilliance abounds.  Gather a group of front line employees, toss them a challenge, and watch great acumen emerges.  What we desperately need in today’s caution-light business freeway are execution leaders.  Performance should be measured by what gets achieved, not by what gets plotted or planned.  To paraphrase a popular USPS ad, “It should not fit unless it ships.”

About Chip&John

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of several best-selling books. Their newest book is "Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to do About it."
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