Thought Leading: Are You “Hiding Your Light Under a Bushel”?

Thought Leading: Are You “Hiding Your Light Under a Bushel”?

© 2015: Charles Nelson AIA LFRAIA | Updated 2023


To start this train of thought, I reprise a 2014 blog post (unfortunately no longer available), by Lars Schmidt, Founder of the recruitment group Amplify Talent.

I am not a thought leader, and neither are you.

The term ‘thought leadership’ once had meaning, but it’s been hijacked and diluted by the countless numbers of self-proclaimed [insert superlative here].

Once reserved for individuals truly transforming their respective fields, ‘thought leadership’ now extends to anyone with a strong opinion and a flair for self-promotion.

Remember back when that term was used to describe others? Individuals transforming their respective fields who we respect, based on things like:

  • Knowledge and command of their field
  • Contributions to their field
  • Embracing risk, leading to innovative and creative new approaches
  • Dedicating time to teach and mentor, grooming the next crop of leaders in their field
  • Taking a completely different approach to traditional challenges

These were the days when thought leadership was an honor bestowed upon others based on their experience and contributions.

Nowadays the term has been cheapened. The desire to stand out in a sea of sameness has led to the prevalence of social media bios claiming “thought leadership”. Self-congratulatory titles, that frequently haven’t been earned.

Maybe we self-assign these terms in an attempt to assert influence? We forget influence must be earned, not claimed. 

Let’s get back to basics. If you ever refer to yourself as any of the above-mentioned terms, you are not. Sorry, no exceptions. If others want to refer to you this way based on your work and contributions to your field, congratulations – you’ve earned it [but please, do not refer to yourself this way].

I couldn’t agree with Schmidt more.

The “thought leadership” juggernaut rolls on, and seems to be picking up steam. And, unfortunately, scooping up some genuine thought leaders along the way. In my opinion, they lose, rather than gain, by association.

When I think about this idea, I am transported back to early childhood, being read to by my older sister Dolly. My favourite book was Winnie the Pooh, and I remember thinking about the Hedgehog (or was it Owl?) who only spoke in capital letters, because he wanted everyone to know he was important. The memory lingers: If a person only spoke in capital letters, how would hearers know that the letters were capitalized?

Three-quarters of a century later, I know: They won’t. Owls, hedgehogs, and all the other stuffed animals around us will be judged by what they do, not by who they think they are. We’ll decide.

Mind you, I am 100% in favour of helping people realize their fullest potential, and there certainly is a place for those who are passionate about doing that.

Returning again to my childhood, one of my mother’s favourite sayings was “Don’t hide your light under a bushel” – “bushel”, here, referring to a bushel basket, a common container of measure around the farm. She always wanted to be a doctor, but had to quit school in the 8th grade and go to work – and never achieved her dream. So she wanted her children to achieve theirs. So I’m all for helping people to get their torches working.

Which takes me to the current crop of high-powered professionals whose goal it is to promote the leadership skills of those who they coach. It would be wrong to challenge their commitment or purpose, or indeed to challenge the fees they charge to take people on these journeys. I can only challenge the end goal; whether “thought leader” is the right target, or whether other mental constructs might be better targets.

Before doing that, I think it is useful to revisit the well-worn, but still relevant, progression from data to wisdom:

Data distilled = Information

Information distilled = Knowledge

Knowledge distilled = Wisdom

This progression begs the question: Can you be a “thought leader” without wisdom?

Without answering that, let’s start with the brainchild of Matt Church and Peter Cook, two highly successful Australian entrepreneurs, who have founded the Thought Leaders Business School (, which takes acolytes through an intensive training and coaching program based on a 6-level “black belt” structure of achievement goals. Church & Cook provide a simple definition of terms: An “expert” is someone who knows something; a “thought leader” is someone who is known for knowing something.

Another charismatic Australian in this space is Sydney-based Catriona Pollard, who runs the PR agency CP Communications ( Catriona’s version of “thought leader” is called “From Unknown to Expert”. Her book by the same name is worth reading and thinking about. She promotes a program designed to do what my mother talked about: getting your “light” out from under the “bushel”.

In a similar vein is the work of Lee Fredericksen and his Reston, VA based branding and marketing firm Hinge Marketing ( The Hinge version of these goals is called “The Visible Expert”, and their book by the same name is well worth reading. The idea here is similar to Pollard’s – uncover what you know; get it “out there”. Hinge’s email stream is full of good stuff and never pushy – recommended.

Lastly, I refer to the “granddaddy” of these efforts to help us connect better with our clients: The Trusted Advisor, the 2000 all-time classic executive thinking guide by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green and Robert M. Galford. The authors take you through a concrete, practicable 5-step path to get to the Trusted Advisor level (pp 85-90). They don’t pretend it’s easy, nor should you think that there is magic potion you can apply to get there. But the path is clear.

To sum up this brief exploration: If you can work through the steps to become a Trusted Advisor to your clients, do you need to worry about whether you are a Thought Leader? You will be one.


See also:

What, if Anything, is a “Thought Leader”?

Thought Leadership in Architecture