A rather sardonic—yet thoughtful—recent post on the online news site Mashable traces the history of the term “thought leader.” It begins by citing Wikipedia, which claims that it was the editor of a publication from the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. who first coined the term in a 1994 article in which some notably influential people were quoted.
Then again, says Mashable, it could have been McKinsey Quarterly. In 1964 it earned the rep as a go-to journal for the business elite and thought leader. If you ask me, the term probably sprang up years earlier when someone was identified as leadingly thoughtful. Seriously, you don’t think that a Philadelphian must have at some point said, “That Hancock fellow is quite the leading thinker, don’t you think, Benjamin?”
However the term may have originated, what’s important is how it’s defined and, mostly, how it is perceived today. More from the Mashable post, which quotes a web entrepreneur: “ ‘If I haven’t heard of you and you’re claiming to be a thought leader, I’m instantly skeptical. … But as soon as someone I’ve heard of, such as a Seth Godin… mentions someone, I’m instantly thinking that I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt.’ ”
Personally, I don’t think “thought leader” should be anointed or claimed. It’s about earning your chops by moving critical conversations forward.
For decades, in fact for more than a hundred years, ASME has earned those chops by convening people who move engineering and technology conversations forward through technical committee meetings, publications, and conferences, and by breakthrough work in the standards and certification arena. Last month, the Society began a new series—more of a movement actually—called ASME Decision Point Dialogues designed to challenge leaders from industry, government, academia, and NGOs to grapple with a series of complex questions facing engineers and technologists. The aim is to raise awareness of existing conflict points and stimulate the kind of debate that leads to bold decisions and disruptive learning.
This movement started with a unique conversation—videotaped in April and accessible now on ASME.org—among leading subject matter experts who tackle the question of how to prepare and inspire generations of engineers to solve the most pressing global challenges. As you’ll see, they’re steered by a Columbia Law School professor who leads the discussion around the question: Will engineers be true global problem solvers? (This month’s cover story on page 32, written by associate editor Alan Brown, looks at the scenario that was the basis of the first dialogue.) The vision for the initiative includes virtual and face-to-face events, so stay tuned. In the meantime, the online dialogue begins now with your participation. Visit the Dialogues page at go.asme.org/dialogues.
ASME’s Decision Point Dialogues live event was modeled after the Fred Friendly Seminars, a series of dialogues and public television programs that explored complex, vital issues using the Socratic dialogue format. Friendly was president of CBS News back in the days of the legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow. You may be most familiar with Friendly through George Clooney, who played the role of Friendly in the 2005 film, Good Night, and Good Luck.
From behind the camera, Friendly was an authoritative figure who influenced the nation’s perspective during challenging times. He was a thought leader. Clooney is the leading man who brought Friendly in front of the camera for everyone to notice.