Is there a better word for "Thought Leader" ?

Words have meanings. They help us communicate. It’s language.

But we also assign connotations and biases to words by how we use them in cultural contexts. Overuse can strip the words away from their original meaning and impart second order characteristics.

Businesses do this often. This can be sometimes creative (greenwashing) but is often annoying and pretentious. The bullshit language one hears at work has become a trope. The vocabulary may differ but the malady cuts across the boundaries of traditional wall street firms, big tech, new startups and even “mompreneurs”.

Using complicated vocabulary in our language is a form of hiding.

See a corporate bullshit generator here and read this vulture article or this funny little book, Uncanny Valley.

Here’s a list of bullshit words that I use most often at work.

  • Repurpose
  • Circle back
  • Thought Leader
  • Stakeholder management
  • Refactor
  • Scalable (in a non technical context)
  • Let’s take this offline
  • serverless
  • data driven
  • future proof
  • let’s park this
  • learnings
  • deep dive
  • key performance indicators
  • dev done (as a noun)
  • QA (as a verb)
  • self-serve
  • data democratization

In a recent article on the subject of using simpler language, Paul Graham has this to say:

Of course, fancy writing doesn’t just conceal ideas. It can also conceal the lack of them. That’s why some people write that way, to conceal the fact that they have nothing to say. Whereas writing simply keeps you honest. If you say nothing simply, it will be obvious to everyone, including you.

Thoughts and Thought Leaders

An example of such overly used expression is “Thought Leader”. Stripped off of its overly abused context, it’s a beautiful word - inspirational; aspirational even.

A Thought Leader is an expert or authority figure in a given domain; someone who influences the evolution of their domain. Thought Leaders have deep knowledge in their area and offer insights, vision and new ideas for exploration.

I think true experts are also curious, humble and inquisitive. They have deep empathy and an ability to listen and assimilate varied views and opinions. The best experts “steal” and crowd-source ideas and vision statements. They are also willing to admit when they are wrong.

I often say “Thought Leader” in the above context. It expresses the meaning a little more intentionally compared to its possible synonyms - “Expert” or “Intellectual”, and has a better ring to it.

Paradoxically though, I cringe to think of myself as a Thought Leader or being addressed as one by someone else. I’d much rather prefer the term “Expert” as an aspirational adjective for myself.

I believe that my discomfort largely comes from the expression’s overuse, which has made it sound rather vacuous and self aggrandizing.

My research led me to this excellent video which says it all about self proclaimed Thought Leaders.

Interestingly though, I have no reservations thinking of myself as a Leader. The word Leader is equally (and even more) over used. So why do I feel more uncomfortable with “Thought Leader” ?

Perhaps the answer lies in the connotation this expression now bears - . The over use has given this expression an inauthentic patina that is hard to rub off.

So is there a better synonym then?

I like the idea behind Thought Leadership and I am struggling to think of an equally evocative word/expression.

Perhaps an alternative could be “Thinker” or “Inquirer” - it is humbler and focusses on the act of building knowledge rather than leading with it. These don’t have the right ring to them unfortunately - may be the reason why buzzwords become popular in the first place.