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Just what is a thought leader?

04272015-thoughtMy wife and I have been enjoying being grandparents for the first time. When we were raising our boys, the learning process seems like it was much slower. Now the rapid changes we are witnessing in our granddaughter are making us remember those days from the first steps, first words, on the tee ball field, the science projects, and beyond.

Wonderful days. And yes, days when things seemed overwhelming. How did we manage? Well, just like generations before us, and generations to come, we leaned into the challenge and embraced the changes as they presented themselves as the boys made those strides towards independence.

At times, we in the critical infrastructure industry seem to be overwhelmed by what appears to be a rapidly changing industry. In the past several weeks, we have been focused on “Master Planning” and “Being a Student of the Business”, topics related to being a leader. Having been engaged in critical infrastructure strategic planning for utilities, public safety and telecom since the early 1990s, let me offer my perspective when it comes to defining a thought leader.

Thought leader? What’s that?
While being recognized as a thought leader is directly linked to past successes, the concept is much broader. I recently heard a quote that should help explain the conflict between being successful compared to being a thought leader:

“All organizations want to grow, but a significant number of successful managers are uncomfortable with the loss of control that comes with rapid growth.”

As I see it, successful thought leaders understand how to manage the gap between the leading edge compared to the bleeding edge when casting a growth vision.

This past week during dinner with Jason Hoskins, COO here at Ulteig, we were reviewing the qualities of a thought leader. Jason shared what he heard from retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal during a recent conference. The general shared that the historical model of vertical “downward” communications was outdated with the rapid changes we’re having, and highlighted some examples in his book, “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.”

Vector illustration of Business Dream in doodle styleThought leaders are traditionally well known for asking questions like, “What could we be known for 3-5 years from now?” or, “What services will our clients be looking for in the future?” Thought leaders are comfortable getting outside their comfort zone and moving beyond traditional approaches.

For example, thought leaders are willing to reinvent themselves by taking past weaknesses and transforming them into needed strengths. Thought leaders tend to be passionate, trusted advisors who create an environment that transforms concepts into reality, in many instances against what the well-informed claim are insurmountable obstacles.

They are more than “go-to, get-‘er-done” individuals. They inspire people to work together and are more interested in a team’s or company’s success than their own. By being willing to make personal sacrifices for the team, they build long term relationships and friendships that extend well beyond their current work environment. The ripple effect can easily span multiple teams, companies, cultures and decades.

Best practices developed by thought leaders show their willingness to mentor beyond direct reports, peers and their management. Watching thought leaders who enable their team compared to leaders who try to control their team has been an enlightening career and personal development exercise for me.

The tighter a micro-manager or task master tries to control a team to achieve short term results, generally any resulting benefits aren’t sustainable. Compare that to the leader who inspires a team while empowering leaders within the team. The results there generally far exceed expectations. Stated another way, thought leaders build a foundation of stakeholders that will extend into the future.

Where do I sign up or do I want to be a thought leader?
Being a leader is a skillset that develops over time. In past blogs, we talked about how that requires a person to actively engage themselves to, “Be a Student of the Business.” It can be a complex process, so to give it the attention it deserves, in my next blog we will explore how we can start the process of developing the thought leader in you.

About the author

Dan is our account executive in the Critical Infrastructure market and has more than 35 years of providing customer-driven technology and energy solutions to critical infrastructure operators in the United States and Canada. He focuses on critical intelligent infrastructure, from smart grids to communications connections, and how they are used as consumers become energy portfolio managers.