A Thought Leader Should Be a Thought Leader

Industry Insights from Paul Meade, M. Sc, MPH

Everyone seems to have a definition of what a thought leader, or key opinion leader, or external expert is. These honorifics are routinely bestowed upon the most revered people in our society.

Most industries—not just healthcare—have thought leaders, but not everyone views them in the same way. Are they thought-provoking? Are they influential? Do they challenge conventions and change standards? Are they truly leaders in their area of expertise? Do they have large social networks? Are they popular and well-known? Are they amazingly brilliant and have a superior intellect? These are many of the questions people ask themselves when determining someone’s thought leadership.

It would appear then, that the definition of a thought leader is in the eye of the beholder, something akin to art or beauty. We certainly cannot get to the answer by parsing the two words. This would mean any leader with a thought would qualify! Furthermore, we have been struggling to define leadership for about 10,000 years now, with still no definitive definition in sight.

To focus on a single industry, such as healthcare, might help with deriving a workable definition. Yet, even in healthcare, new definitions are cropping up all the time, perhaps even more definitions than in other industry sectors.  The traditional or classical definition of a thought leader has been a person who has a significant impact within a field of expertise—an impact that changes the thinking of others to adopt new clinical practices that can become the norm. They are usually experts that have studied in a particular field for many years, conducted research, written many articles and books, spoken at scientific meetings, and are generally recognized among their peers to be leaders in their field.

But we now have sociologists trying to convince us that anyone with a wide social network and a multi-tiered professional interaction platform constitutes a thought leader.  While those in the latter category may, indeed, be thought leaders, they may also simply fall in the “being popular” designation. Granted, it could be hard to have a large social and professional network without commanding some form of leadership, but certainly not impossible. Some practitioners use modern communication techniques to create a “larger-than-life” footprint to give the illusion they have a grand omnipresence within their field. Being accomplished and respected in a particular field are certainly traits most thought leaders must have to be recognized by colleagues and others, but there are other significant achievements that a thought leader can have to be recognized as an expert.

Here’s a great question to view through the prism of thought leadership—how many people have to respect one’s expertise to qualify a person as a thought leader? Well, if you think about it, one can be a “big fish in a small pond” and be considered a local thought leader. And there are certainly those that have attained worldwide recognition to be considered global thought leaders.

Can one be considered a specialized thought leader?  For instance, in the area of media expertise, many might consider Dr. Sanjay Gupta a thought leader, since he has tremendous exposure on television for CNN. But as a neurosurgeon, (his board certification, by the way), would he be considered a thought leader in neurosurgery?

One could be an amazing keynote speaker at medical conferences and receive invitations to speak all over the world, but if that person does not conduct any research nor publish any journal articles would that person be considered a “speaker” thought leader or thought leader in speaking? Think about the Nobel laureate who remains hidden in her research laboratory for 30 years to eventually emerge with a great discovery. Is she a “research” thought leader?

Or should a physician who works closely with health plans to develop drug formularies be considered a “reimbursement” thought leader? In many ways, one can be a specialized thought leader if he or she is truly recognized for a specified skill or area of expertise within a given field. On the other hand, being recognized for having expertise across a range are areas and being respected by one’s peers for such depth and breadth could be considered a “generalized” thought leader.

The reality is that defining a thought leader—in medicine, in particular—is a complex process. It is not about choosing one particular activity and declaring a person a thought leader within that activity, unless, of course, one is looking for expertise in such a narrowly defined area for a specific purpose. It is not about the quantity of work performed, and it is not about quality of that work. It is not about social networks and working relationships with colleagues. It is not about influence and peer respect? It is really about all of these elements, and probably a few others, as well. Defining a thought leader should not be an exercise in compartmentalization and narrow capabilities, but one that takes a holistic approach based on a particular set of needs. After all, a thought leader should be a thought leader.

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