Among the most unfortunate side effects of our education system is that it conditions us to avoid the possibility of mistakes at all costs. In the protracted college admissions process that is middle school and high school, mistakes mean low scores which in turn reduce the likelihood of getting into top schools. Given this reward structure, we learn to memorize and avoid mistakes rather than break new ground and experiment with new ideas. It’s a bad warm-up for the next generation of would-be innovators, and it also sets people up for a tough adjustment to a professional world in which new ideas are the coin of the realm. Whether it’s explicitly part of your job description or not, it is everyone’s job to find ways to improve the business. That’s hard to do if you’re not willing to make a few mistakes.
To be clear, making mistakes is not the same thing as being creative. But if you aren’t at least prepared to make mistakes you’ll never accomplish anything original. Bold ideas always involve some risk, and part of being an innovator and a good leader in general is honing your risk tolerance so that you know when to when to hold back and when to bet big. Becoming a thought leader in an organization can be challenging, especially when you’re just starting your career. After you’ve established a strong professional reputation, people may listen to your ideas simply because they’re your ideas. Until then, it takes both originality and hustle.
Having Ideas Is Not Enough
A thought leader is someone who is recognized as an authority in their field on the basis of their powerful, original ideas and ability to drive adoption of them by the mainstream. The three key words to pay attention to there are recognized, original, and adoption:
- Other people need to actually consider you a thought leader, which means they need to be aware of your ideas in the first place
- Your ideas obviously must be important, compelling, and at least somewhat original
- You must be able to convince others to change their behavior or worldview based on your ideas
Companies that do all three of these things dominate the marketing conversation in their industries and out-compete rivals for both customers and top talent. Individuals who do all three of these things are constantly in demand for their skills and perspective. Such individuals can turn their view on something into the accepted view. The benefits are obvious, but it takes skills as well as smarts if you want to change other smart peoples’ minds on something, much less get them to change their behavior. You can be thoughtful in your approach, but you can’t be timid.
The Seven Types of Failed Thought Leaders
Great thought leaders achieve originality, recognition, and adoption, while the wannabes fail in one or more of these aspects. Over years of observing people and trying to be self-critical, I’ve noticed patterns that many of us fall into keep us from creating the impact we want to with our ideas. And yes, I have fallen into several of these patterns. While a couple of these archetypes may seem like rites of passage for readers who are just starting their career, take my word for it that you don’t want to be in any of these roles:
- The Worker Bee — Many of us start our careers as worker bees. We are working so hard on the tasks at hand that we don’t even bother to dream up new, important things. This person hopes that their hard work alone will propel them upward, and it does at first. Their ideas tend to be efficiency-oriented, incremental, and uncontroversial, while others set their objectives for them. In strong organizations, worker bees who don’t demonstrate broader thinking skills eventually disqualify themselves for certain assignments and leadership roles because others perceive their demeanor as symptomatic of a lack of boldness and imagination.
- The Wallflower — The wallflower looks like a worker bee from afar, but unlike the worker bee she actually does have substantive ideas bounding around in her head. Unfortunately, Wallflowers are either too shy or ambivalent to stand behind their ideas and risk possible embarrassment. They might share their thoughts in private or during one-on-one meetings when the stakes are low, but they don’t work at getting “air time” for their ideas, and so they never take hold.
- The Silent Dissenter — There isn’t a company in the world that doesn’t have at least a few of these roaming the halls. You know the type: They spot all sorts of inefficiencies or problems with how the business operates, but they never take it upon themselves to fix it. When the problems are either addressed or turn into even larger problems, the Silent Dissenter is always there to say, “I’ve been saying we need to do this forever.” Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
- The One-and-Done — I have let myself fall into this role multiple times, and the result is almost always the same. The One-and-Done has what they think is a great idea, iterates on it for a while, mentions it to someone once, and then never follows up again. Bonus points for expecting a lengthy email to magically cut through the clutter for a manager who gets more than one hundred emails a day. Just writing this description is making me cringe as I think back on how many times I’ve done this.
- The Outsourcer — This person gets a little further than the One-and-Done, but doesn’t want to do the work involved in turning their idea into real action. If the idea is so good that others immediately grasp the benefit for themselves you may get lucky and they’ll see it through (though you’ll get less credit for the idea). Usually though, if you’re not involved in seeing your idea through to the end, it won’t get there. In this context, being called an “Idea Man” is definitely not a compliment.
- The Willy Loman — Named after the protagonist in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, this person just doesn’t understand how to shepherd an idea through the acceptance and adoption phases. Whether they’re talking to the wrong people, laying out unconvincing arguments, or failing to consider other people’s motivations, this poor person just can’t get things off the ground even when they might be on to something.
- The Quixotic Loner — Not every idea can be a winner, and no one nails it every time. The Quixotic Loner just doesn’t know when to let an idea go or put it back on the shelf for a little bit. This a particularly tough label to assign because pushing new ideas that imply big changes for others can feel like an exercise in futility. Still, some ideas just deserve to die. The more ideas you generate, the less likely you are to find yourself in this stage because you won’t over-invest in ideas that are fatally flawed or unworkable in your present situation.
Not to sound harsh, but each of these personas disqualify themselves from the highest levels of leadership in good organizations (except for the Quixotic Loner under the right circumstances). If you see traces of yourself in any of these descriptions, then make a decision to approach your work differently. The only things more precious than your time are your ideas, and you can’t afford to let them go to waste. None of us knows how many good ones we’ll have in a lifetime.
One Last Thing…
Sometimes, the inability to drive adoption within your company or peer group means that you need to take your talents elsewhere. Many if not most of the most brilliant people in history were seen by others as Quixotic Loners (or worse) until they were proven right. You have to ask yourself if adoption of your idea is possible in your present environment. If it isn’t, then you need to decide whether the best thing to do is adapt your idea, drop it, find a new environment, or create your own.
I write about management and career development weekly at Smart Like How and contribute regularly to Inc.com — if you found this piece helpful please recommend it! You might want to check out a few of my other essays: