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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Let’s Stop Calling So Many People ‘Thought Leaders’

By Peter DeWitt — July 09, 2018 4 min read
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It’s not that I don’t believe inspiring thoughts in others, or being inspired by those we read or see present, is a bad thing. We have all been on the receiving end of a great conversation or found ourselves sitting in a professional learning session that inspires us to try something new in our schools or classrooms.

The problem is that when we designate one person in the room as the thought leader, it has potential to lower the status of everyone else sitting in the room, and it seems to be happening more frequently. After all, it is pretty normal these days to attend conferences where they have ‘Thought Leader’ sessions, or we hear or read interviews with the newest ‘Thought Leaders.’ But as we dig down deeper into their thoughts, we really find that these are ideas are typically inspired by others.

For full disclosure, many of us who speak in the field of education have been called a ‘thought leader,’ and it’s a term that I am highly uncomfortable with for a number of reasons. For one, I do not think we are worthy of being called a ‘Thought Leader.’ We stand on the shoulders of giants, and much of what we talk about has been around for awhile (i.e. leadership, instruction, classroom management, etc.). Do we have new thoughts on the topic? Maybe. Are we thought leaders? I’m not so sure.

Thought leader seems to also have some gender bias. There are more men considered ‘Thought Leaders’ than women. A lack of women at the center of our conversations inspired me to write this blog and this one on the topic of women in leadership. I felt then, and still feel now, that the term ‘Thought Leader’ continues to be male dominated. Should that still be the case?

We Are Better Together
I have been working as a consultant/author for over 4 years now, and what I have learned is that leadership is not created equally. We don’t need a hefty travel schedule to understand that because many of us have worked with great leaders, and those who are not so great.

However, what I have noticed each and every time I run a workshop is that there are people in the room who have taken on larger challenges than I have, or used more innovative methods to engage students and teachers than I have, and they are not referred to as ‘thought leaders.’ I try to understand their context and offer insight from others I have learned from along the way, but I feel more like a person who makes connections, and not one who is a leader in thought.

The reality is that each and every one of us (i.e. teachers, instructional coaches, social workers, psychologists, and administrators) can contribute to the greater good of education, and sometimes we shut that opportunity down when one of us feels we are the thought leader and everyone else in the room should merely listen to our thoughts.

So, I thought of a list of reasons why we should rethink the whole term. We all love lists. There are at least three reasons we should rethink how often we refer to someone as a thought leader.

Very rarely is one person a thought leader- Our ideas come from working with others. The ideas many of us write or talk about were inspired by our work with others. For example, I write and talk about collaborative leadership, but that idea of collaborative leadership was inspired by the teachers I worked with when I was a principal. They wanted to collaborate with me, and we found ideas together to use it. The idea didn’t solely come from me. Perhaps I provided the conditions, but we all provided the thoughts.

It provides too much status -Hey, I get it. When I meet some of my educational heroes I am in awe. However, the people I find to be educational heroes don’t want to be put on a pedestal. Yes, in this social media era we find ourselves in, there are people who want the status but very rarely do they deserve it. In a room where one person is given too much status, everyone else around them in the room feels less worthy to question the ideas that come up in the session, and sometimes the ideas offered seem too out of reach for participants because they feel they can’t implement them if they are not thought leaders.

It sets the ‘Thought Leader’ up for failure- Too often when a person is referred to as a ‘Thought Leader’ one too many times, there are others sitting around them or on social media who cannot wait to find a reason to knock them down off their pedestal, which is a pedestal they may never have wanted to be lifted up on. It’s not disrespectful to limit the use of the term ‘Thought Leader.” I actually believe by not using it we are being more respectful of everyone in the room.

In the End
We all have people that have provoked thought in us. However, this need to give so many people the title of thought leader always creates an opportunity to divide us, because it gives status to one person and not to another. In an effort to create conversations, the title can sometimes shut those conversations down because one person feels unworthy to challenge the other.

Believe me, I like inspiring thoughts in others, but I have probably been more inspired by others than they have been by me. What I want is for people to leave comments on the blog if they agree or disagree, and I want them to attend workshops to learn from those colleagues sitting around them, and I want them to share ideas that I can learn from as well. I want shared inspiration.

Just a thought...

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.