I Know A Thought Leader When I See One

My name is Scott Abel. I’m an evangelist for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of content production. I’ve spent the past two decades arguing for improvements in the way organizations design, create, manage, organize, augment, engineer, translate, localize, and deliver information to those who need it. I’ve made my case in front of audiences around the globe. I’ve written about new methods, approaches, standards, and content technologies in blogs, books, and magazines. I’ve preached about the need for the adoption of information management best practices on webinars, podcasts, web tv programs, and in social media posts, and in presentations at both local meetups, industry conferences, and international confabs.

In short, I live, breathe, and frequently talk about, content and those who create and consume it. I earn my living studying and communicating the value of figuring out how to deliver the right content to the right people, at the right time, in the right place, in the right format, on the devices consumers use, in the language they prefer, their own.

Does all that make me a thought leader?

That’s a good question. And, depending on who you ask, the answer may vary.

One thing is certain, according to Jill Rowley, Chief Growth Officer at Marketo, “you should never call yourself a thought leader.” Duly noted.

Rowley’s point? Like beauty, thought leadership is in the eye of the beholder.

Translation: I’m not a thought leader because I say I am. I’m a thought leader because you say I am.

Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, shows off his conference badge collection. Location: 16th Ave Steps, San Francisco, California. Photo by Joan Manuel Rivera.

So, what is a thought leader, exactly?

That question has been answered in thoughtful articles published in digital publications like this one. Although definitions vary, most thought leaders are recognized as knowledgeable, trusted, and respected gurus in a specific niche or discipline. They are people who are generous with their time and talents and who are willing to buck the status quo. They reject the “we’ve always done it that way here” mentality. Thought leaders are often seen as meaningful, inspiring, moving, evolutionary, and transformative teachers; creators of blueprints for others to follow. And, while they are often seen as authorities in a specific domain, they are much more than subject matter experts.

David Sessions, writing in New Republic, says thought leaders “are a new kind of thinker.” They “burst with the evangelists’ desire to change the world.” They are a “new type of intellectual,” Sessions argues, “full of new ideas and vibrant ways of thinking.”

In a nod to Justice Potter Stewart, I shall not today attempt to further define what a thought leader is; perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But, like you, I know a thought leader when I see one.

Take a quick peek: Thought leader Salim Ismail makes the case for exponential organizations as a way to fix civilization.

Subject matter expertise and thought leadership

Let me introduce you to Dr. Steven Gundry, a world-renowned cardiologist, inventor, and medical researcher turned nutrition-focused restorative medicine practitioner. He’s a subject matter expert (actually, he’s an expert on several subjects) and, from my vantage point as the beholder, he’s a thought leader.

Stephen Gundry, MD — world-renowned cardiologist, inventor, and medical researcher turned nutrition-focused restorative medicine practitioner. Learn more at www.gundrymd.com.

Dr. Gundry’s research into the power of diet to treat the causes, not the symptoms of human disease, is documented in his New York Times best-selling book, “The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers of ‘Healthy’ Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain.” His work has led tens of tens of thousands of people to rethink the foods they eat and the way they prepare them, in order to provide their bodies with fuel that can both power and protect them.

Gundry has all the makings of a thought leader. He’s introduced humanity to a radically different way of looking at food and its impact on human health. His teachings buck the status quo. He argues against some popular nutritional advice pushed by big agriscience, food processors, nutritionists, government agencies, and the healthcare sector for decades. Gundry’s primary argument is that although plants are a hidden source of vitality, they also contain natural protections from human predators. These protective mechanisms are in place to discourage us from consuming them. But, Gundry says, by carefully choosing and preparing them, the right plants can help us live healthier lives by preventing — and even curing — some diseases.

Steven Gundry, MD is author of “The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in ‘Healthy’ Foods that Cause Disease and Weight Gain” and “The Plant Paradox Cookbook” (pitcured here).

Gundry’s most interesting, and, sometimes, controversial, research focuses on “highly toxic, plant-based proteins called lectins” of which gluten is a member. Gundry says “lectins are found not only in grains like wheat, but also in the gluten-free foods many people mistakenly regard as healthy, like … grains of all kinds (especially whole wheat) some fruits and vegetables (corn, tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, eggplant, peppers), nuts (especially peanuts, and cashews, the latter of which are seeds, not nuts), beans and legumes, soy, and conventional dairy products.” After consumption, Gundry says, these lectin-containing foods “incite a kind of chemical warfare in our bodies, causing inflammatory reactions that can lead to weight gain and serious health conditions.”

Lectins contribute, Gundry says, to a host of conditions like inflammation, intestinal gas, bloating, brain fog, and skin blemishes. These conditions and others, Gundry says, are triggered by the foods we eat.

Gundry’s advice is to reduce and avoid the amount of lectins we consume. He says that traditional dietary advice often recommends we consume a wide variety of lectin-rich foods, which leads to an imbalance in the gut microbiota. Gundry is part of a fast-growing area of scientific research that focuses on studying the link between bacteria in our intestines and a host of diseases and conditions that negatively impact human health.

[Related content] What is the microbiome? (video)

But while his focus on the impact of lectins on the microbiome (the collection of cells living on and inside our bodies that help perform life sustaining functions) makes him the foremost authority on the subject, he also has his fair share of detractors, including the Skeptical Cardiologist.

Brosseau says thought leaders “are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success.”

They are also often unwelcome agents of change, especially amongst organizations and individuals that benefit from maintaining the status quo.

Dr. Gundry certainly fits the bill here. He’s recognized as the go-to expert on gut health-promoting plant-based diets and an innovator who understands the need to use science to help his patients succeed.

Approachable, discoverable, accessible

Thought leaders codify what they know. They create methods, processes, guidelines, and best practices. And, they foster approachability (meaning they work to make themselves discoverable and accessible) and they are doers — they jump in and make things happen. Thought leaders are more than just experts, Brosseau contends. “They create platforms upon which others can build or a movement that others can join.”

Thought leaders are community builders. They create a dedicated group of friends, fans, and followers to help them replicate and scale their ideas. They earn their audience because they share persistently and openly in a niche industry or across an entire ecosystem.

Dr. Gundry has a well-trafficked You Tube channel on which he publishes nutritional explainer videos, recipes, and advice on nutrition, cooking, and general well being. He’s a popular guest on television news and infotainment programs. And, he’s an accomplished author of several books, including “The Plant Paradox Cookbook,” that showcases a collection of over 100 tasty-and-healthy recipes to support those who wish to avoid the hidden toxins lurking in foods we normally consider healthy like tomatoes, zucchini, brown rice, whole grains, and quinoa.

Agents of change

Thought leaders, more-often-than-not, are agents of change. They are disruptors who focus on “making change happen in the world,” says Brosseau. “Thought leadership is not solely about being known as the subject matter expert or the person who has completed the academic research on what could be done to bring about change.”

Thought leaders must understand how change works in order to bring about behavioral modification. Changing minds and attitudes can be challenging, especially when so many people and organizations have a stake in maintaining the status quo.

“I’ve found it takes about six weeks of starting a new program to make it stick,” Gundry says. “The first two weeks requires significant willpower and success is more likely when you seek help from others. Long-term success is possible only when you communicate what you are trying to do and why you are doing it.”

Steven Gundry, MD.

Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler

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Content strategist and content optimization evangelist helping companies deliver the right content to the right audience, anywhere, anytime, on any device.