Thought Leader: What Makes One?

If you do a lot of reading on lifestyle design and personal development, you may have come across the term “thought leader.” So what and who is a thought leader?

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?


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Lifestyle Design: What is It? Part Two

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35 thoughts on “Thought Leader: What Makes One?

  1. Fantastic post! Thought leaders are obviously necessary for innovation and to inspire people. Anyone can be a potential thought leader. Anyone can have an original idea that goes against convention. I certainly like to to see original ideas, but many “conventions” have been well thought out by very intelligent people, and have stood the test of time. I’m not saying there isn’t for change, but there’s something to be said about convention. An original idea for the sake of original idea, doesn’t make it a good idea. An example to this is music, indie vs. pop music. Which one is better? Pop music is kind of formulaic, even predictable, and for the most part stays within a convention. Indie music on the other hand sometimes claimed to be more original, thoughtful, maybe even outside of convention. Which one is better? Music enthusiasts would probably say indie because it produces a more original and a fresher sound, but does that make it necessarily better. I’m a fan of both and have heard the good and bad in both.

    Anyway, regardless of my rambling, your post is very interesting and thought provoking. May I suggest that merely presenting such a topic is characteristic of a thought leader.
    TheDailyThinker recently posted..Saving Money by Identifying Wants and NeedsMy Profile

  2. Very interesting post John. The problem is that it is sometimes tough to determine who is being a thought leader for their own personal gain. Someone may come up with a new way of doing things just to be able to stand out. So it may be worth considering their motives and think about if they get commission or profit in some other way by changing your mind.

    I just watched a movie last night that was related to this. It was Moneyball starring Brad Pitt. It focuses on how he goes out on a limb and takes a new approach to managing a baseball roster. Many people go against his new strategy insisting that it’s not how things have traditionally been done. He stuck with his intuition though and it really paid off in the end.
    Jeremy @ Modest Money recently posted..Craigslist Classified Ads – Bargain Hunting Made SimpleMy Profile

    • I need to watch Moneyball – have heard nothing but good things about it.

      Unfortunately there are a lot of charlatans masquerading as thought leaders. It seems like the pool of potential devotees is so big that anyone can get a few to follow them.
      John recently posted..Thought Leader: What Makes One?My Profile

  3. I think it’s a shame that as you say, most people will never buy into what lifestyle design leaders advocate. Worse some will be completely dismissive. I love the idea of lifestyle design and appreciate the way several of those leaders have altered the box I think in, but I’m also aware that choices I made prior to engaging in those ideas must be cleaned up before I can jump in. Kind of sad really.
    Andi @ MealPlanRescue recently posted..Bacon Milkshakes?My Profile

    • Maybe it’s for the best that most people don’t follow the advice, because then it won’t be out of the mainstream. I think our economy is built on people not doing this, so it’s probably best that most keep filling cubicles and desks.

  4. I love your idea about the “early retirement advisor!” I think people would really buy into a service like that and it would be a big hit. The only trick is, how would the advisor monetize that? Ask for a small percentage of their passive income? Flat fees?

    I can just imagine my investment guy cringing when I tell him I will no longer be contributing to my Roth IRA so I can instead invest that money into a rental property.
    Matt recently posted..A Lesson Learned by My First Trip to Las VegasMy Profile

    • Ha! Yep, monetizing would be tough. Might have to charge a yearly retainer. I would think the workload would be a lot easier because you’d be more of a consultant than a salesman. Something worth looking into.

  5. Fascinating take on the idea of paradigm changing. But I think you should have lead with a slightly different quote:

    Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish, and he’ll spend every cent on a shiny boat.

    There are traps and pitfalls and false prophets (profits?) on both sides of the lifestyle design fence. It can be hard to find the meat amongst the waste.
    bax recently posted..Learning lessonsMy Profile

  6. Very interesting post indeed. Thought leaders definitely have a place but like others mentioned you do have to consider their genuineness. Are they out for personal gain and if so, don’t follow their lead. It is that fine line between being inspired and being foolish.

    Regardless I think it is important in our society to take risk and go out and try something different. The status quo isn’t always right and change is often required.
    Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter recently posted..Thrifty Ways to Save on TravelMy Profile

    • It’s interesting to watch which concepts become mainstream, and what replaces them as the new “outsider” interests. I see so many people teaching “make money online,” and it’s so obvious that many gave up trying to actually make money and decided to just sell others’ ideas instead.
      John recently posted..Combining Finances and EffortsMy Profile

  7. Unfortunately when it comes to making money blogging, people will write what sells. I guess it’s no different than selling a product or service. Why struggle doing something original, if you can fit into an already existing niche or market. It kind of makes business sense really. Burger King has done well with that concept. They do something similar to MacDonald’s and follow them into regional markets, letting MacDonald’s pay for the market research.
    TheDailyThinker recently posted..Dealing with Debt – Why is having no debt a virtue?My Profile

  8. One of my favorite thought leaders is Marcus Buckingham. The StrengthsFinders movement has really impacted the teams I have led and been a part of. Another is Seth Godin. And most recently, Michael Hyatt.

    Great article by the way.
    Thad P recently posted..Taking ResponsibilityMy Profile

  9. Hi Jon, This article was inspired, well written, and well researched. I’ve never heard the term “thought leader”, but I resonate to the concept and have thought about what differentiates those influencers from the rest. Keep up the thought provoking work.

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