To be called a True Professional is the highest compliment in the working world; the best LinkedIn recommendation you can get. True Professionals get headhunted and hired. They are the ones you want on your team. They are the mysterious, functional ones that listen to podcasts about marketing or finance or startups in their free time, and read listicles about how to be productive and successful. They also go to Art Galleries, but only if they put the experience on Instagram. What’s the point of being cultured if people don’t know you’re cultured?! They work hard, play hard, which means they get very loose on a Friday night to relieve the various stresses of the week. True Professionals have very nice houses and expensive baby strollers. They often wear puffy vests. Female True Professionals enjoy pilates and yoga, and male True Professionals enjoy riding their eye-wateringly expensive bicycles with other male True Professionals on the weekend.
I don’t actually know if they do these things, but I like to assume they do.
We all sort of want to be a True Professional until we realise how hard it is. It can be bloody impossible to get your shit together, per se. I am simultaneously a control freak and completely out of control, which is a juggling act at the best of times. The thought of not only arriving to a meeting on time without food in my teeth, but keeping up with the conversation, actively contributing, whilst also keeping the profanity and immature jokes under control is enough to give me a small aneurism.
Luckily for all of us, there’s one more level in the unspoken corporate ladder. The ultimate career goal: The Thought Leader. Once you’re a Thought Leader, well, the rules change. Thought Leaders are rebels. They play by their own rules, refuse to submit to the system. The whole exercise is at direct odds with the idea of being a True Professional. Thought Leaders couldn’t give a shit about being professional. They are mostly men, and are characterised by their performances at public speaking engagements and articles in industry publications. Thought Leaders are asked what they think about things all the time, and probably do some or all of the following things at aforementioned public speaking engagements:
- Stagger around on stage with their arms flailing as they discuss their greatest successes with absolutely no regard for humility
- Use self-deprecating humour, false or otherwise
- Swear liberally
- Be inarticulate and somewhat confused in their speech
- Follow no particular structure or linear narrative
- Talk about the slides (“I shouldn’t have put that slide in/I love this slide/Oops, I forgot a slide/This slide is hilarious, to me anyway”)
- Have a one-way conversation with themselves
This may read as a scathing account of Thought Leadership. It’s not. It’s a study in charisma. You see, charismatic people don’t do things properly. Charismatic people push boundaries and play with fire. They show humanity. They make mistakes. Because people don’t go to Ted talks and Vivid Ideas to watch True Professionals. They go there to be inspired, to be challenged, and quite possible most of all, to be entertained.
Thought Leadership lives around the edges. It’s blurry lines and occasional moments of disarray.
Of course, society has structure. We would achieve nothing if everyone was a lofty creative genius that didn’t do things properly, so we can’t all be Thought Leaders. The True Professionals and everyone around them who really care about their jobs are instrumental to the momentum of life and society. Thanks for that people! But, surely there is something we can learn something from Thought Leaders to make progress in our own way.
Something I think we can all learn from Thought Leaders is utter courage in their convictions. If you’ve ever worked with a Thought Leader you’ll notice that….shock!…..not all of their ideas are good. In fact, they have a whole bunch of shit ideas that they have no hesitation whatsoever sharing with everybody. It’s as if they have no shame when it comes to bad ideas. In an interview with Benny Lewis, a guy who has taught himself a bunch of foreign languages really quickly, Lewis explains that those that have the gift for learning languages also have an extremely high tolerance for embarrassment. I’ve decided this is applicable to any skill, including ideas. You have no way of improving unless you have the guts to put something out there and listen to what people think of it. What are good ideas and who decides what a good idea is anyway? Start getting your thoughts and ideas out there, shamelessly. They are might be better than you think they are, and if they aren’t, then at least you know and can act accordingly.
Thought Leaders are also unbound by traditional thought processes. You’ll often find a Thought Leader flapping gleefully like a fish out of water with rollerskates on. This might be because they haven’t had a formal education and have had to learn/make things up as they go, it might be because they have changed careers a bunch of times, it might be because their uni degree schooled them in one discipline and they are working in another. Either way, they are taking the status quo and flipping it, whether they have done this consciously or not. Not knowing exactly what you’re doing or how to do it might mean that you can invent processes, evolve processes, or bring a new perspective. The moral of the story? Don’t feel inferior because you don’t have a track record; feel liberated. Use your unique angle to become a part of your your offering. Let your freak flag fly.
A conundrum I often find myself facing is this: I know plenty of female professionals. Women perform better than men across the board in High School. And I know lots of women with loads of passion and enthusiasm. So why is it that I can only name a handful of female Thought Leaders? Perhaps it’s because we are too focussed on doing things properly – rehearsing our presentations, making sure we’re speaking clearly, making eye contact with people in the audience, being courteous and respectful. Run through, one last time, just to make sure it flows nicely. But sometimes you need to say FUCK THE FLOW! You have been asked to speak to a group of people, right? That means that someone respects what you have to say. Maybe it’s time to chuck out the slide deck, forget the respectable-length pencil skirt and go off-script. Tell people why this matters to you. Be selfish, be indulgent! And most of all, don’t let airs and graces get in the way of what you believe.
Thought Leaders don’t do things properly. They forget their lines, they screw up, they don’t have perfect diction or sentence structure. They fail, frequently. Thought Leaders are happy to get carried away in their moment of passion and if that means swearing like a sailor or skipping past an important step then so be it. And you know what? We lap it up. Like someone that is softly-spoken, Thought Leaders make you lean in and actively listen. Pacing, frenetic, confusing, they draw us in with their humanity. They have a sense of entitlement because they have made the obvious connection between someone asking them to speak publicly, and being a smart, interesting person. I’m telling you that you need to make that connection too. The spotlight is yours, if only for ten minutes. Make it count.