The media has discovered that some people on the Internet claiming to be thought leaders may not be exactly whom they claim to be.


“If we don't reject the self-nominators‚ then we're allowing any number of ‘wannabe’ thought leaders to dilute the very meaning of the term,” writes James O’Brien, wringing his hands in Mashable about the number of self-proclaimed “thought leaders.” “If we tacitly accept some five-easy-steps model for thought leadership, then the best thought leaders — especially the newest of our next crop — are in danger of getting lost among the juice-machine celebrities of the Internet.”

It doesn’t help that Kevin Ashton, a general manager at Belkin, recently detailed in Quartz how he created a thought leader, Santiago Swallow, with tens of thousands of Twitter followers and a Wikpedia entry, for $68 in a couple of hours.

“There’s just one thing about Santiago Swallow that you won’t easily find online: I made him up,” Ashton writes. “Everything above is true. He really does have a Twitter feed with tens of thousands of followers, he really does have a Wikipedia biography, and he really does have an official web site. But he has never been to TED or South By South West and is not writing a book. I — or rather he — flat out lied about that.”

And heavens to Betsy, that sort of thing is just terrible, O’Brien writes. “Anyone with some knowledge and a point of view can present themselves as a thought leader to promote whatever brand they'd like to sell.”

Okay. Let’s say that’s true. Stipulated: there are people on the Internet spouting what they claim to be wisdom who are only trying to promote something.

So what?

Brilliant people draw inspiration from any number of mundane sources. Philo T. Farnsworth invented television as a farm boy in Idaho, looking at his neatly plowed rows. Hedy Lamarr (yes, the actress, but also a mathematician) helped develop spread-spectrum technology using the idea of player pianos. Velcro was invented when Georges de Mestral took his dog for a walk and it came back covered with burrs. On another level, people get inspired by their horoscopes, the song that’s playing in the elevator or when the clock radio goes on, or by their Myers-Briggs personality types.

And you know, it doesn’t matter. What matters is poking your brain and giving it something different to chew on, and there’s no law saying the only person who can do that is someone officially anointed by McKinsey, Gartner or whomever.

If your choice of inspiration is Lao Tze, one of the Kardashians (particularly the Kardashian/Kierkegaard mashup), or a talking seagull, who cares? There’s only one question:

Does it work for you?

Just remember, though, when you start spouting your new-found wisdom in board meetings, be sure to attribute it to Gartner, McKinsey or whomever. Your boss might not be as enlightened as you are.

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