On Thought Leaders

All through the world and history, and across most areas of life, we empower and choose leaders. As usual, we have things we say about the sort of leaders we want, and when choosing we act on preferences. And the two are usually not quite the same.

We tend to actual want leaders who have good family or institutional pedigrees, who give us our desired degrees of flattery and hypocrisy, who will use raw politics in the right ways to gain and keep power, and who are pretty/handsome, energetic, smart, articulate, charismatic, socially savvy, and have other impressive abilities. We also want leaders that others will treat as leaders. But we usually don’t say these things.

For example, we might say we want religious leaders who can help us to be more spiritual, firm leaders who will increase profits, or political leaders who will create peace and prosperity. And while the ancient world didn’t care much about them, in the modern world we often say that we want thought leaders.

Thought leaders lead our conversations and thoughts on particular concepts, ideas, and claims. And we prefer to say that such leaders actually developed original insights on those thoughts. That makes a nice convenient story. “Person P developed thought X; when we heard about X we had to start talking about it, and P has been helping us with that.”

But the pool of people who are inclined to and able to develop each thought X is far larger than pool of people that we consider to be acceptable thought leaders on X. So to get the sort of thought leaders that we want, we tolerate and even encourage qualified leaders to take credit for thoughts developed by others. We let the charismatic people we prefer as leaders pretend to have developed the ideas they talk about.

Yes, each of us personally can’t do the research to find out who actually developed each thought X. Yet there are people who can do such research, and if we cared enough we’d reward them for exposing thought leaders who take origin credits due to others. But we don’t.

Yes, some thought areas have stronger property rights in ideas. With precise and unique enough terminology to enable you to show that you had the same thought before someone else. But even then they can give you only a minor footnote. It is easy enough to find some detail by which their discussion differed from yours, and then claim that detail makes all the difference to why your contribution was small while theirs was big.

So know that unless you are in a thought area with strong property rights, or have the rare features that people actually want in thought leaders, you can influence the world of ideas by coming up with new thoughts, but you are unlikely to be celebrated as a key thought leader. If enough people cared, we could create stronger property rights in thoughts, to increase the rewards to developing thoughts. But don’t hold your breath waiting.

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  • ArvinJA

    In other words: get a professorship at a prestigious institution or become CEO of a popular company before pushing ideas, if your goal is to be a thoght leader. Originality is neither necessary nor sufficient.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen gwern comment about this w.r.t. whitewasing some recently popular ideas, but let’s pretend someone cooler did first (sorry gwern, you’re cool to me!)

    • xyz

      The most glaring example of such whitewashing being Elon Musk “inventing” the vactrain. It was even in a Steely Dan song, for crying out loud. (Yes, originally Hyperloop was a slight variation, but that went by the wayside years ago and the press are still calling it “Elon Musk’s Hyperloop invention”.)


  • Dave Lindbergh

    “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”
    –Howard H. Aiken

    You, of all people, are surely familiar with that experience, Robin.

    There’s a difference between supporting a thought to make it more widely known and accepted, and developing the original thought.

    Ignorant people will ignore that difference. And we are all ignorant on most subjects. So supporters get credit they’re not entitled to for developing original thoughts.

    That’s not fair, but supporters are necessary for valuable new thoughts to become accepted. Because those who are skilled at developing new thoughts are rarely also skilled, or in a position, to support them.

    And no blame accrues to the supporters, except in the (rare, I think) cases where they explicitly take credit for the thoughts of others.

  • amaranth

    fun how we currently live in a world where most ppl think that burning the commons for fun and profit is easier than making anything http://www.hidysmith.com/blog/2017/11/28/goffman-corruption-or-regarding-btc10k

    i want to make things

  • you can influence the world of ideas by coming up with new thoughts, but you are unlikely to be celebrated as a key thought leader.

    I find that encouraging. I’d rather have people developing ideas because they seek (favorable) influence than because they seek recognition. I think the former will come up with better ideas, even if not truer ones, truth being the outcome of conflicting idea bearers.

    I’m glad when people steal my ideas. You seem to resent it (yet, strangely, don’t mention the specific instances).

  • Perhaps this is because in the really successful ideas we see our own thinking, while those we don’t aren’t. Nothing new under the sun but a season for everything.

  • Riothamus

    I have not noticed this thought leader phenomenon in politics, or in the military – it may be that this reflects strong pressures for conformity in those environments.

    It seems that academia has a refined, though not foolproof, process for establishing origination of thoughts.

    Are the examples in these cases I am missing, or is this phenomenon mostly focused on business and the arts?

    • Robin Hanson

      In strong hierarchies, the only acceptable thought leaders are those high in the hierarchy. In which case we just call them leaders, and don’t distinguish thought leaders.

  • Robert Koslover

    People with strong minds are often happy to give their great ideas away, since they are confident they will have many more. Those with weaker minds are far more protective of their ideas, since they are afraid of running out of them.

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  • Will Pearson

    When developing ideas there is always the chance someone has already developed the same idea or is developing it in parallel. So you probably shouldn’t get too attached to it.

    Who captures the credit for an idea can be a fun game for historians.