In the broadest definition, a thought leader is someone who seeks to help people by changing the way they think. They aren’t so much interested in generating lists, templates and how-tos for every scenario. Rather, they seek to help you change your entire mindset, and usually argue that by doing this, you can attain independence and the power to analyze every new challenge against your own values.
The word “leader” should make you assume that these are people who want to be viewed as reputable and honest. That is why many of them guard their models with ferocity, and work hard to be seen as trustworthy.
The popular mantra “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime” truly embodies what a thought leader is, in a way that is familiar to many. This statement is widely credited to Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, though some think it came from the Bible.
Many of the messages in the lifestyle design industry are focused on breaking rules or otherwise rewriting them. Thought leaders teach us that before seeking to answer a question, we should first look at the framework in which the question is asked, and test its validity.
For example, if someone asked you “is it best to shoplift on Monday or on the weekend?,” you might spend some time analyzing staffing levels, customer density and loss prevention data. Or, you might reject the question outright by saying, “I question your premise and don’t believe that one should ever shoplift, therefore I am unable to answer your question.”
These leaders show us that we should not be afraid to challenge the status-quo, and that there is nothing wrong with rejecting the frameworks into which people try to force us.
What About an Evil Thought Leader?
Now, your brain is probably scanning over some people you may view as thought leaders, and it probably flashed a few images of some evil ones. Yes, there are evil thought leaders out there.
Rather than name some obvious names, it should be said that it is probably the people whose names you don’t know who are engaging in the most insidious types of thought manipulation practices. These are marketers and ad execs whose sole motivation inside your brain is to get you to spend money.
There are a lot of them, and even though they compete with each other, they ultimately play for the same team.
These people do not have your best interest at heart. They don’t care if you can’t afford what they are selling. They don’t care that you may go bankrupt if you buy their product.
Personal Finance Thought Leader
Since you probably have an interest in personal finance, let’s take a closer look at the pinnacle of personal finance: retirement advisors. Most prosper only if they are able to convince you that retirement is only for old people who worked for 40 years and put their money into commission-earning equity and savings vehicles.
These are the rules they have created and amplified through popular culture and the media. Notice how they never question the prevailing wisdom, but simply reshape the ideas of the day to fit their necessary paradigm.
They would rather compete within this framework than risk trying to offer a new one, in fear that they may kill the Golden Goose.
So let’s pretend we have a retirement advisor who does want to carve out a new niche by challenging the rules of his peers. He changes the sign in front of his storefront to read “Early Retirement Advisor.” He adds a little slogan under it: “We don’t sell products, only service,” and dumps all of his commission-earning products.
He instead teaches his clients how to build a sustainable financial life, focusing on passive income and self-sufficiency. He helps someone retire at 45 by saving enough to buy some land, build a small energy independent home, a garden, some livestock, and a well for water.
The advisor does this by showing his clients that if you question the prevailing wisdom and replace it with something new that makes sense, you can still win, and even get ahead.
Who Are Some Important Thought Leaders?
Rather than do a bio for these people, I’m just going to throw out some names you probably have heard: Timothy Ferriss. Ramit Sethi. Chris Guillebeau. Dave Ramsey. These people are leaders in the personal finance and lifestyle design realms.
They have a tough job because most people will never buy into what they are offering. Same goes for those who spread the word that debt freedom is the path to follow. Most people will not follow this advice. But even if a few people are reached and their lives are changed, it is worth it.
For those of us who value constant learning, we will also seek out people who are able to challenge our long-held notions. It does not matter what beliefs you are exploring or who you choose to consult. Every day is an opportunity to form a new opinion or value, and let go of an ideal that is holding us back.
So, who do you value as a thought leader, and what role do they play in a growing and changing society?