Over three months this winter, I had some rather puzzling correspondence with a veteran speechwriter concerning a column she was going to write for the newsletter I edit, The Influential Executive.
I'd invited her to write a guest column and she suggested as a topic: how to help your leader become a thought leader.
"I can tell you from experience," she told me. Executives "are thirsty for content on how to be thought leaders. They're honestly clueless and willing to listen to anyone they think actually knows what they're talking about. Being 'thought leaders' is a corporate obsession. I promise."
Okay, I said, you had me at "thirsty." I gave her a word count and a deadline, and she agreed.
The deadline passed; I wrote to check up.
"David, I would still love to do this but am just overwhelmed with work that came out of nowhere. I promise I didn't forget. I've sat down to write it a couple of times, but always get interrupted. … I still have many thoughts on the topic to share."
Another deadline passed.
"This article has been on my mind constantly, but I haven't had a single chance to sit down and finish it. … my mom is sick, my car is in the shop …."
"Look for it later tonight. I'm writing as we speak."
I get the article, which wanders like a drunkard, somehow in the course of 800 words managing to get off topic in three different directions.
I ask her for a revision, telling her, "My readers are going to come to this article greedily wanting what we're promising: 'So your client wants to be a thought leader.' I think we have to address the requirements and the tactics directly."
"But I truly don't have a list of tips and tactics to offer. Read back to our first discussion in this email string. What I was thinking about is the concept of true influence and what separates it from visibility. My thinking about it all might be a bit out there. I don't even advise clients who really want to be true industry thought leaders to do traditional EV plans–not even keynotes unless the conference courts them. My alternative is that, if they're going to speak at conferences, stay in the trenches with a really forward-thinking break-out topic. I know, that's pretty radical. But talking head keynotes are becoming … pedestrian … for people who really want to set themselves apart. Are you okay with those kinds of ideas?"
Ah, yes, to the extent that I understood them, sure. "Perfecto!" she wrote. "That's exactly what I had in mind."
"I was so bummed when I first started to research this … waaay back at the first of Dec.," she added. "I Googled 'thought leadership' and 'executive influence' to see what new and nifty things other consultants were doing that had maybe flown under my radar. And there was zilch! People have Web sites calling themselves leadership experts … but with 'success stories' reporting they wrote and placed an editorial in a medium-market newspaper. Shriek!"
That was a month ago. Since then, silence.
How to make a souffle: First, get a stove.
How to be a thought leader (or a columnist): First, get a thought.