The oldest rule of storytelling is a guide to personal conduct:
Show, don’t tell.
It’s also a way to think about how you present yourself.
Have you ever seen one of those websites where an organisation or individual tells you that they’re a thought leader? The ones where they brag that they are at the forefront of their industry?
They make me cringe.
According to this piece on Forbes, the definition of a thought leader comes in two parts. Part one (emphasis mine):
“A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognise as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialisation, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organisation for said expertise.”
“A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognised as such.”
In my mind, a leader in a field or discipline is a leader solely because they are the best at what they do. The article above seems to have a two-sided definition. Yes, you should be really good at what you do. But more importantly, you have to make sure everybody knows it.
The article doesn’t mention actually being a thought leader. It just emphasises the benefits of appearing to be one.
But the people who are thought leaders don’t spend their time trying to attain a label. They pour their energies into the work that matters to them and the wider world.
They don’t chase the label, the recognition or the reputation. They do their work and allow others to place labels upon them.
They’re not worried about everyone knowing how good they are. To them, the recognition doesn’t matter. The work does.
Montaigne was right when he said that to make yourself out to be less than you are is no better than pretending to be more than you are. Exaggerated humility is no better than unfounded pride.
But when it comes to the labels we use to define ourselves, keep it simple. Err on the side of understatement and just focus on doing the work.
If other people want to call you this or that, if others want to spend their time trying to label you and categorise you and put you in a box, fine.
Don’t play their game.
Because the time you spend thinking of how to best appear to others is time that the real thought leaders of the world are using to make themselves, and everyone around them, better.