I can think of several people that have influenced my professional life to whom I'd grant the title “thought leader”: Jeffrey Zeldman, popularizer of web standards in the early days of what was then known as the “World Wide Web”; Gerry McGovern, evangelizer of user-first considerations in digital design; and Mike Rohde, popularizer of the sketchnoting method of visual note taking. Each of these individuals put a stake in the intellectual ground, posted hundreds of blog entries about the practice of their chosen domain, and kept it up for years through videos, websites, podcasts, and email newsletters.
Following a thought leader means being tuned into advances and best practices of one’s field of expertise. In my role as a manager, one of the first questions I ask prospective hires is who they follow online. I want to know if they can name anyone. Anyone at all. An inability to offer a single name causes me to question their dedication to work, particularly in web design where standards and techniques change weekly. A lack of independent study suggests a lack of concern for staying current. I haven’t always passed on candidates who couldn’t produce a name, but it has proven to be a window into their professional attitudes.
What about the desire to actually be a thought leader...or, more frequently, the professional pressure to be one? The marketplace is flooded with books and articles that emphasize the importance of personal brand management. Now that the means of mass communication are in everyone’s direct control, we’re all expected to show our skills in action, not simply through a static CV or résumé, but through an ongoing stream of social media and blog posts. Prove that you know what you say you know...continually. Having a personal website with a portfolio isn’t enough in the modern marketplace. Today’s professionals need to have current work on display, with a solid back-catalog available for perusal. And the continual flow of new posts has to be maintained, else potential employers wonder what went wrong. (Why has this candidate gone dormant? Last post: September 8, 2014.)
This is a new level of professional burden to be borne, one that stressed workers might find themselves incapable of carrying. Not only do we need to work hard to complete our daily bread-earning gig and balance our personal lives, we have to serve as unending fountains of online content too. This pressure is manifested in the growth of LinkedIn posts, a platform which has worked to establish itself as the go-to professional blogging service. One of the side effects of this pressure to produce is a flood of short, tediously unoriginal posts that add no new insight. They’re simply words strung together, poorly conceived, that lead nowhere. Many remain unread, having served only to fill space.
Does this do anyone any good? Even if these posts were of uniformly high quality and worth reading, who would have the time to plow through them all? How many thought leaders can the marketplace bear? Can there be such a thing as “peak thought”...and have we reached it? The modern Inetrnet’s giving us a chance to find out.