Keywords for the Age of Austerity 30: Thought Leader

In his recent New Republic piece David Sessions reads the category of the “thought leader” as the organic intellectual of the one percent: a figure who gives an emerging class its sense of its purpose in society. This purpose, Sessions argues convincingly, is

to mirror, systematize, and popularize the delusions of the superrich: that they have earned their fortunes on merit, that social protections need to be further eviscerated to make everyone more flexible for ‘the future,’ and that local attachments and alternative ways of living should be replaced by an aspirational consumerism. The thought leader aggregates these fundamental convictions into a great humanitarian mission. Every problem, he prophesies, can be solved with technology and rich people’s money, if we will only get our traditions, communities, and democratic norms out of the way.

In his account of Daniel Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry, Sessions writes that Drezner understands the thought leader as a new kind of intellectual who has come to prominence in the wake of the “public intellectual”–a more skeptical, quieter sort of intellectual more likely to be institutionally housed in a university than a corporation.

There is certainly something new about our “thought leader,” something related to the sense of of selfhood modeled by many of the terms on this blog. Like the entrepreneur and the innovator, the “thought leader” models a certain kind of entrepreneurial self: restless, flexible, visionary, self-made, and never not at work. The major difference is that while anyone, theoretically, can innovate, not just any Tom, Dick, Harry, or Sheryl can be a thought leader. The thought leader is singular and exceptional. The concept, therefore, makes explicit the heroic, if not authoritarian impulses that the “entrepreneur” ideal sometimes conceals with its fuzzy odes to collaboration.

As Sessions suggests, thought leadership is also an example of contemporary capitalist thinkers’ anxious need to justify themselves. Thought leadership does not simply enrich the firm or the leader himself; it also makes the world a better place, often at the same time.

As with the “innovator” and the “entrepreneur,” the metaphorical model for the thought leader is often the modernist artist—visionary, solitary, scorned by convention, “disruptive” of the norm, always making it new.  The thought leader is a “strategic visionary,” says another of the legions of writers explaining how to thought-lead. “It’s like painting a picture.”

As Sessions suggests, the image of the “thought leader” as authoritarian, creative, and do-gooding is exemplified by the TED Talk genius cult that promotes the power of ideas—and those who have them—to overcome any obstacle. The many parodies of TED Talks document some of the primary features of thought leadership. For example, in the Onion Talk “Loudness Equals Power”–in which an entrepreneur promotes surgically-amplified vocal cords–mocks the class, race and gender dynamics of thought leadership. In this talk, a white man tells us that his invention is a simple fix to overturn entrenched social hierarchies, like gender inequality: “the biggest voice in the room,” he shouts, “will belong not to the man with the biggest voice or most lubricated vocal cords, but the one rich enough to afford the largest amplifiers!”

A paradox of this leadership model is its celebration of innovation in all things combined with its extreme formal conventionality—what could be less innovative than a lecture, what less original than thought leadership itself? And so one of the most ruthlessly mocked features of TED Talks is the autoerotic self-seriousness and repetitiveness of the genre. One of my favorite TED parodies comes from a CBC program, This is That, which presents This is That (i.e., TIT) Talks). Unlike many others, this parody makes fun of the familiar form of the TED Talk, rather than the bombastic content. The TIT Talker simply narrates the formal conventions of a TED Talk as he reenacts them. As he enters the darkened, bare stage, he recites, “walk on stage, walk on stage, walk on stage.” He then takes a position in the spotlight by announcing, “you know I’m a Thought Leader, because I’m wearing a blazer, I have glasses, and I’ve just done this with my hands,” as he folds his hands earnestly yet strongly in front of him. Despite the genre’s ritual performances of humility, and the ostensible centrality of the thoughts on display, what the TED model of Thought Leadership also (if not only) offers is an entrepreneurship of the self, in which the performer sells an ideal version of himself to an audience that bestows prestige or funding.

Thought leadership is not as new as it thinks, however. Like “innovation,” it is an old concept that thinks it is utterly new. And also like “innovation,” its origins are religious.

Most histories of the term credit it (mistakenly) to Joel Kurtzman, a prolific business-press editor and writer who began using it in 1995 to preface interviews with movers and shakers in Strategy + Business magazine. And Kurtzman, to give him credit, certainly popularized the concept in its current form. The idea here is that business success is a “mental game,” that “C.E.O.’s and their top leadership teams must not only outexecute their rivals, they must also outthink them.” If the “marketplace” is a just and efficient sorter of good ideas and products and bad ones, then commercial success is a logical consequence of creativity and intellect. “A thought leader,” writes another business author in a typical definition, “is someone who looks at the future and sets a course for it that others will follow. Thought leaders look at existing best practices then come up with better practices. They foment change, often causing great disruption.”

Best practices can always be even better practices, you see. Never sleep, never stop change-fomenting.

The Nineteenth-Century Thought Leader


“Thought leadership” is much older than Joel Kurtzmann, however, and goes back at least to the late nineteenth century, when it connoted moral authority above all. In 1899, the Rev. J.O.M. Hewitt wrote: “the thought leader of the race must be a a man of self-control, of mature and reasonable speech.” The phrase’s first appearance in the OED comes from Lyman Abbot’s flattering biography of Henry Ward Beecher, the Brooklyn clergyman who became embroiled in a notorious 1875 adultery trial. Abbot, a Beecher ally and fellow pastor, wrote to exonerate his friend. Despite the well-publicized sex scandal, Abbot argued, Beecher “retains his position as the most eminent preachers and one of the great thought leaders in America.”

Thought leader, in other words, was the virtuous complement to “innovation,” at a time when this word was often still a pejorative term for heresy. An innovator was a false prophet, but a thought leader was a moral visionary.

Both terms are now virtues, and there is still something of the prophetic in the Thomas Friedmans and Ben Horowitzes of our era. It’s a little overwrought for modern tastes, perhaps, but if ever started a poetry section one could imagine finding this 1901 ode from The American Illustrated Methodist Magazine there:

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 2.20.39 PM

Back to the Future of Secular Thought Leadership

Its earliest meaning was religious, but thought-leadership’s secular meaning also predates the contemporary, post-1990s vogue. In the middle of the twentieth century, it was most often a public relations term. In 1961, the house journal of the U.S. Savings and Loan League advised bank managers to establish themselves as the main source of financial information in their community—and thus become “what is known in public relations circles as a ‘thought leader.’”

It was also used in ways that seem quite contemporary, though–to describe the best and brightest experts in business and political affairs, the Thomas Friedmans of the Cold War. In August 1963, a New York Times ad for Atlas, a subscription service collating translated news reports from around the world, appealed to aspiring movers and shakers: “If you’re ready to join the foreign affairs experts, the thought leaders, the people who want their ideas first-hand, start your introductory subscription now. The Statist, a quaintly named British newsmagazine, advertised “top-level review of current world affairs, industry and commerce, finance investment” all authored by Europe’s “thought leaders.”

And so while the term has definitely taken off in the age of austerity to describe a particular kind of ruling-class intelligentsia,  thought leadership is perhaps less a radical break in the tradition of the American public intellectual than the heir to some of its oldest exemplars: the adulterous moralist, the Cold War foreign policy expert, the American thinker who thinks he charts the course, as the poet wrote, for “the sons of every clime.”


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