Among the most unfortunate side effects of the modern education system is that it conditions many of us to avoid the possibility of mistakes at all costs. In the protracted college admissions process that is middle school and high school, mistakes translate into low scores which in turn reduce the likelihood of getting into top schools. Given the reward structure of the education system, we learn over time to place more weight on avoiding mistakes than we do on breaking new ground and experimenting with new ideas. Not only is this bad practice for the next generation of would-be innovators, but it also sets people up for a tough adjustment to the working world, where bringing original thought to the table is expected of them. Remember, whether it’s explicitly part of your job description or not, it is everyone’s job to find ways to improve the business.
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 will never accomplish anything original. Becoming what is commonly referred to as a “thought leader” in your organization demands that bring original thinking to bear. Despite the sometimes-negative baggage that phrase has acquired, mainly from its overuse, I am using the expression un-ironically. Being a real thought leader within your company is challenging, especially when you’re just starting, and I don’t think the endeavor merits any snark. Later in your career after you’ve already established your reputation, people will listen to your ideas simply because they’re your ideas. But without the halo of an established reputation, all you’ve got are the strength of your ideas and your ability to sell people on them. Bold ideas naturally 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.
The Three Traits of a Real Thought Leader
A real thought leader 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 in that statement are recognized, original, and adoption. Thought leadership means more than just having ideas: you have to effect real change. In particular, three conditions must be met before you can truly be a thought leader within your organization:
- 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 novel
- 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 customers as well as top talent. Individuals who do all three of these things are always in demand for their skills and perspective. These people have the ability to turn their view on something into the accepted view, at least within a modest sphere of influence. And in case you missed it, the ability to impose your thoughts and preferences onto others also goes by another name: power. The benefits are obvious. But it takes serious skills to change smart peoples’ minds on something important and then get them to change their behavior. You can be measured in your approach, but you can’t be timid.
The Seven Types of Failed Thought Leaders
To paraphrase Tolstoy, successful thought leaders are all alike; failed ones all fail in their own way. Great ones achieve originality, recognition, and adoption, while the wannabes fail in one or more of these aspects. Rather than enumerate a list of “Don’ts” when it comes to sharing big ideas, I think it’s more valuable to recognize the patterns that many people fall into that render them ineffective at doing this. I’ve identified seven behavior patterns over the years that describe most of the ways in which I’ve seen people fail to bring an idea to fruition. And yes, I have fallen into several of these patterns at different times in my early career. While a couple of these may seem like rites of passage if you’re just starting your 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 the wallflower actually does have substantive ideas bounding around in his or 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 championing new ideas that imply big changes for others feels like toiling in futility when you’re trying to drive acceptance and adoption. 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 either fatally flawed or otherwise unworkable in your present situation.
I don't mean to sound harsh, but each of these types ultimately disqualify themselves from the highest levels of leadership (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 (a topic I'll cover in this space shortly). 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.
Of course, 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.