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I Wanna Be an “Influencer”: Too Many Leaders and Not Enough Followers

I wanna be a “thought leader.”

Yah. Don’t we all, it seems.

Some years ago a professional friend and I shared the stage at what used to be a huge women’s conference down in Florida, sponsored at the time by Office Depot. I was beginning my real work in the field of networking skills. She was well established in one part of it, with far vaster ambitions than I possessed.

Not long thereafter I produced a small book. She called, after having read it, and informed me that I was a “thought leader.”

First time I’d ever heard the term. Sometime back in the early 2000s. I was duly impressed (with myself). By comparison, my contact is a lovely, talented, capable, and now, very well-to-do person. Worldwide influencer, big international contracts and clients. And by god, good for her.

Not me.

She earned it. Put her heart and soul into her business. Made it work.

I didn’t.

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For one, it doesn’t much appeal to me (although the idea of being a thought leader most certainly did) and for another, I am distracted by too many shiny objects. I developed a few ideas, produced them, wrote a horribly embarrassing piece of self-serving pap of a networking book that I (blessedly) didn’t publish, put that down and got involved in supply chain.

Where I stayed, flourished, and won a few prizes. Developed a very high level of expertise. Got all the proper certifications. Wrote the book for the industry.

But I’m no thought leader.

I’m quite happy with much more modest goals. As I’ve aged my interests have side-stepped into brand new territory.

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With those shifts, after years and years of professional speaking, Fortune 500 consulting and international travel (look, I did okay, but I don’t live in a McMansion) I am quite happy to produce a few good things, even one or two very good things. Prize-winning work. But then lots and lots and lots of folks win prizes. I’m just one of millions who have a heap of crisp, dry laurels stuffed somewhere in the house.

Our society hands out prizes and accolades like Halloween candy in the hopes that we’ll keep producing. It works, too. The problem is that all too often those accolades are rewarded for suspect reasons, not necessarily quality work. So I take what prizes I may (or may not) have earned with a rather large grain of salt.

But I’m not a thought leader. With the exception of a few folks who find my stories and writings of interest, and some do, I am not much of an influencer either.

Here’s what a fellow Medium writer had to say about the subject:

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I am perpetually tickled by Linked In profiles of those who lay claim to either, or both, or who refer to themselves as “evangelists.” God help us, we have far too many of them already. Or another favorite: ninja. The wholesale claim to being an original thinker is often followed by deadly boring TED talks, artificial, inauthentic and embarrassingly bad presentations, and a book ghost written by (a real thought leader) but claimed by said self-proclaimed thought leader. Most of us watch the talk or read the book and feel the uncomfortable sense that we have indeed heard this stuff before. Because, kinda, we probably have, in most instances.

Hell, the book I wrote was in many ways an update of what many great thinkers have said already about the power of words. I’m not them. I was able to work that material in a way that was engaging and intriguing, but it ain’t new material. You can find threads of what I wrote all through Buddhism, Christianity, and a great many more places. I might have come up with some new twists on the material but virtually none of it was original, because it’s part of our shared humanity.

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There have been a few true originals in history. Most of us aren’t them. There are a few true originals now. Most of us aren’t them. We desperately wanna be them, but most of us are relegated to repeating what’s already been said, with a creative twist. That’s perfectly acceptable. Some of the world’s greatest writers and composers and designers and architects lifted ideas and tunes from their idols and mentors and created terrific new material. It’s what we do: we build on what’s already there.

I would offer that Seth Godin is a thought leader Original, brilliant, inventive. Hey, maybe it’s just me, but when you’ve penned nineteen bestsellers and coined a great many terms that are now in the business vernacular (purple cow), then you’re a thought leader.

Old ideas can appear new when updated with current language and put into the context of our times. But most aren’t new. That’s where the hubris comes in. Having blue hair, a whole body tattoo or chicken bones through our nostrils doesn’t make us original. Memorable, but not original. Just go visit a few indigenous tribes to see how original that is.

By now, Linked In and the profiles listed on the National Speakers’ Association (NSA) membership rolls are so full of so-called thought leaders and influencers (basically anyone with an iPhone standing in front of an Icelandic waterfall) that it’s pretty difficult to find someone who possesses the simple common sense to admit that they’re pretty good but they’re not all that.

Those folks are fun to take to lunch. You can actually get a word in edgewise.

Good followers, by the way, are as valuable as, or more so, than thought leaders. In fact, adept followers are huge influencers at the ground level. Some of the most potent folks at work have no title, or a modest one. They have their fingers on the pulse of the company, know what’s going on, and people talk to them. A lot. When too many of us are focused on yammering about our own supposed influence, these folks are quietly going about doing real influencing.

Speaking of thought leaders, If you want a good chuckle, attend the NSA national convention. Effectively, three thousand self-absorbed “thought leaders” yapping at you and everyone else about how special they are. Are there some thought leaders and influencers among them? Yes. But they’re pretty quiet.

Why? They’re listening. Thinking. Considering. Questioning. Learning.

That’s a good part of how they got to be thought leaders and influencers.

I once saw a speaker’s bio which identified the woman as Mississippi’s very first CSP (Certified Speaking Professional). My immediate -and I admit it, unbidden, but there you are- thought was that this might not be a wise claim. That there is only one CSP in the entire State of Mississippi (almost three million souls) and that it took that long for someone to FINALLY earn that designation (nearly forty years) is not something I would brag about on my bio.

But that’s just me. Perhaps she’s a thought leader in Mississippi. I wonder how hard that would be, but then, I’m from the Deep South, and I can say that kind of thing about my home territory.

This is the danger of hubris. It can backfire.

Call me stupid, call me foolish. But don’t call me a thought leader. If you think you are, you’re likely to get viciously parodied (please see, and if you’re like most so-called thought leaders I know, you won’t find this amusing.

Being devoid of a sense of humor about yourself isn’t a characteristic of true influencers, at least in my book.

Some of the most influential folks are also the most quiet about it. While I believe we should lay claim to the territory we do indeed own, there’s a lot to be said for simply going out and getting things done, whether it’s writing a book, building a bridge, or climbing a mountain while wheelchair bound. Nobody can argue with results. That has a way of earning us a title we really do deserve.

When others call you an influencer or thought leader, that’s a whole different ball game. When you do it, it tends to fall flat.

Not long ago, a man in Australia sent me a Linked In invitation to connect. His profile began, in all caps, with a hyperbolic claim that he had some fifty thousand connections. My knee-jerk reaction to this was who in God’s name cares? The number of connections doesn’t necessarily translate in to anything whatsoever. What he’s done for his actual clients does. Those results, as well as what those clients are willing to say about his work, validate him. Period.

I didn’t accept. I don’t have any desire to be listed among the man’s admirers, because all I am to him is a number that he can claim, among the many thousands who have no clue who he is or what he does. He hasn’t earned it, any more than I have earned the admiration of the nearly six thousand people I am supposedly followed by on Linked In. I’m only in touch with a few. If I’m lucky, I’ve added value to them.

I feel the same way about thought leader and influencer- when people lay claim to them- that I do when I read the insultingly fake- “aw shucks” Linked In comments about how “I was so humbled to be given THIS HUGE PRIZE, or to be A FEATURED SPEAKER AT THIS HUGE CONFERENCE.” The thread is so full of self-congratulatory nonsense as well as hundreds of consultants complimenting one another that it no longer bears reading.

Here’s one I just plucked from this morning: Very humbled and blessed to have this spotlight in the D — — — P_________ Magazine.

Frankly, bullsh*t.

Um, no you’re not deeply humbled. That’s disingenuous. Own it, be happy about it, but don’t expect those of us who read endless posts of the same treacly nonsense to buy your story. You’re bragging.

You have every right to if you were indeed awarded a prize or spotlighted for something you did.

Crisp, clean honesty is deeply refreshing. Clarity is power.

Both are influential.

But that’s just me.