Three recent FT articles encapsulate much of the difficulties involved: from the fake news that undermines our sense of objectivity, to the energy-sapping ‘thought-leadership’ of pseudo consultants, to the hubris and vanity of CEO books.
The FT’s management editor Andrew Hill, as usual, skewers the surplus of quacks with their barely-formed or reheated ideas that face executives like ‘a great river of swill flowing towards them as they struggle to work out what is important in their world.’ He notes here that half a million LinkedIn users claim to be thought leaders, too often motivated by marketing or public relations rather original thinking. Mr Hill argues that the ‘best thought leaders should recast themselves as “thought-provokers”’—a simple idea that itself probably qualifies as genuine thought leadership.
What we read is not unconnected with how we read it. Research suggests that executives prefer their thought leadership in feature-length reports and books. The latter might well confer a sense of greater scholarship, but according to another FT opinion piece, ‘CEOs and investors should beware the curse of authorship. Books by the chief are often an indicator of over-confidence.’
The article notes how former General Electric chief Jack Welch’s memoir marked GE’s peak, while Conscious Capitalism, by Whole Foods Market co-founder John Mackey, preceded a 60% share-price collapse. Part of the risk lies in long, 12-18- month publishing lead times during which a lot can go awry for a company. But perhaps more damming is the observation that: ‘When CEOs believe their “principles” can help “anyone” to “achieve their goals”, hubris has set in.’
A final and ever-growing concern about the value and efficacy of the published word relates to fake news. The FT’s editor Lionel Barber in a recent Oxford alumni address provides important historical and professional context for understanding the danger of us failing to ‘attend to the facts and to pursue the truth.’