Don’t Let a Few Thought Leaders Make Us Stupid

What is a thought leader? If you Google ‘thought leader definition’, you get something like: one whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential. That seems like a good place to start. While this article applies to thought leaders in general, a few of the references I make are about thought leaders in the agile, leadership, and agility domains.

I will consider types of thought leaders, why they make us stupid, and how we can help ourselves as well as thought leaders improve!

Types of Thought Leaders

There are 3 common types of thought leaders. Some people exhibit characteristics of multiple types at once.

  1. Self-proclaimed thought leaders: These are folks who say “I am a thought leader,” in an effort to imply that we should listen to them.
  2. A person who many people look to for guidance and vision: I affectionately call these folks “fancy people” (yes, really). They are people we look to based on something they have done–writing a valuable book, teaching a class we attended, coaching us, writing an amazing set of articles, giving an amazing presentation, etc.
  3. A person who has helped you: A person who is always improving, learning, and helping others do the same.  They don’t have a book, have not signed an epic document, but they have helped you, challenge you, and inspire you! Often, this can be more important to you than the second type above.

People in that first group, the self-proclaimed thought leaders, rub me the wrong way. Some of their reasoning may be marketing, but when I hear it, I almost instinctively have less respect for the person.  I need to work on that judgement, so I don’t end up

Don't let just a few thought leaders take a wrong turn!

Don’t let just a few thought leaders take a wrong turn!

discounting a good idea; the people I truly consider to be thought-leaders are quite humble. Thought leaders who lack the humble quality often diminish their real value.

Why Thought Leaders Make Us Stupid

I think the problem is simple. If we look to a select few for all insights, we are not helping continuously improve, but instead limit our thinking and ideas. Of course we have to build on what is out there and learn from it, if we can, but most of what we are working with in agile is exceedingly complex and the “expert” will not have every answer.

It’s almost as if some thought leaders are archaic command & control managers. Instead of the iron clad plan, they pass down iron clad thought: “Thou Shalt Think _____!” It’s ironic (and still sad), since it flies in the face of the very nature of what we are trying to do with agile and agility.

I’ve been in conversations in which someone asks a question, and as a second person in the group answers, a #2-type thought leader walks up. The person who asked the question cuts off the person answering and says, “Thought leader, what do you think?” What the heck? In one case, when I mentioned it to the thought leader later, there was confusion on their part — trying to understand why they were supposed to have “the answer.”  I took this as another sign that they were being a truly humble thought leader.

Helping Ourselves and Thought Leaders

A. Be Responsible: To start, much of this is on us. Yes, us. You. And me. I (or we) could blame the self-proclaimed thought leader or complain about the book author, but I need to take responsibility for this myself. Each of us does. What can I do?

Who knows where the next great idea will come from? Are you a Thought Leader?

Who knows where the next great idea will come from? Are you a Thought Leader?

I can question everything. Learn. Listen. Ask questions. Listen more.  At the end of the day, take in what is out there, but don’t just do it because “they said so.”

It is troubling that people think the first line of the agile manifesto is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” It is not. Do you know what it is?

The first line of the Agile Manifesto is: “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.” Said another way,“We are uncovering better ways of doing *stuff*, by doing *stuff*, and helping others do *stuff*”.

We get better by working with people, learning, improving, and experimenting.

B. Question Thought Leaders: We all ultimately define thought leaders for ourselves. It’s up to us! That part of what “be responsible” is about. We owe it to thought leaders to question them. I have read a number of times in blog and related comments where people say, ‘so and so signed the agile manifesto, so you should not question them’. I would suggest the exact opposite! If you have a thought leader you know and love, you OWE IT TO THEM to question her/him. Do you want fragile thought leaders? Do you want them standing in a tower thinking, “I guess I must be right about everything, since no one ever questions me”? Of course not! Help them improve! Ask them questions!! Press them for explanations.

C. Be a Thought Leader: You can and should be a thought leader. #3 above talks about people you see as thought leaders who are not fancy.  There are likely already people who think of you that way.  You are likely already a person who is always improving, learning, and helping others do the same!

You do not have to say “I’m a thought leader” or write a book to be one. All you need to do is help people be awesome! The entire basis of agility is learning through collaboration and relationships. Don’t hold yourself or the rest of us back! We need everyone involved! We all have something to contribute. We need you.

Don’t let a few thought leaders make the rest of us stupid!


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  1. Nicely said. I share similar views about the thought leaders who fall into category #1. I’ve even unfollowed one or two when they let their arrogance taint their actions (eg. having an open and outright argument on twitter to protect turf).

    There are lots of great thought leaders who fall into category 2 & 3 which I find provide far more value to the community compared to category 1. ¬†What I’m always amazed by is how willing they are to chat and share.

Jake Calabrese

Jake Calabrese is a coach, trainer, and coach-consultant working to help organizations meet the promise of agile by going beyond agile practices to address culture challenges and help teams and leaders reach and maintain high performance. He has unique expertise as an Organization & Relationship Systems Certified Coach (ORSCC), a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC), and Professional Certified Coach (PCC), and as a trainer and coach for Agile Companies (helping non-software organizations use agile). Jake created the AgileSafari cartoon series to introduce humor into the more challenging issues we have to tackle. Jake uses ideas from various areas of thinking such as: Lean, professional coaching, neuroscience, psychology, facilitation, brain-based training, improvisation, agile, kanban, and scrum. Jake regularly speaks at local and national conferences including Mile High Agile, Scrum Gathering, and Agile Alliance Agile20xx conferences.

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