Paul Jarvis

The problem with thought leadership and the dark side of building expertise

My favourite thought leader, slash lifehacker, slash productivity-optimizer is Dexter Guff.

He’s an every-person millionaire who serves up all-you-can-eat #thoughtdogs on his podcast, Dexter Guff is smarter than you (and you can be too), which covers everything from: “How to start your own conference” to “Why everyone needs an executive assistant”.

Dex shares his proven strategies to help you live an amazing life, exactly like his, except it’s yours.

He’s a self-proclaimed guru that will totally change your life.

Oh, and, he’s completely made up by a comedy team (from Canada!).

Since nothing’s truly become part of the social zeitgeist until it’s been parodied, Dex’s character and podcast show are a parody of something that hits close to home online: the internet thought leader.

The podcast is so well done and so on the nose with current trends, reviews on iTunes routinely mistake it and him for the real thing.

Thought leadership as a trend

There’s a trend, where a person creates a personal brand, builds a bit of an audience then sells them info products. (Hell, I’ve done just that in recent years as well—we’ll circle around to that in a minute though.)

Status is achieved by revenue, which is then written about in a blog post, in an effort to be “transparent”, and by being guests on the same podcasts, writing for the same publications, running joint-venture webinars, and keynote speaking at the same thought leader industry events. It’s like a credibility circle jerk of audience sharing and social proof, in order to lend more credence to each boastful assertion of expertise. This then opens the doors to more revenue, internet fame and transparent sharing. Oh, and more transparent blog posts making 6-figures this month.

The problem is, as the Dexter Guff parody illustrates, is that anyone can be an expert. A thought leader. A guru. All you need to do is claim that you are one. In today’s world, simply stating that you’re an expert in something makes you an expert in that something. Seriously, that’s the only step (ps: by my online course on the one step you need to take to become an expert guru, now only $2,999). And once you become a thought leader, the next step is letting your audience pay to know exactly how they can achieve exactly what you’ve achieved – hopefully without as much work as it took you. In claiming expertise, in a personality-as-brands world, you can then get those speaking gigs, podcast guest spots and even sell your own online courses.

Author Dan Pink has said that we all want to achieve mastery without pain—which is impossible (it’s even impossible if you buy a $2,999 course). But the allure is so great, people continue to buy into it. And because people buy into it, others (thought leaders) line up to sell it. Why wouldn’t they? There are people with their wallets open, just waiting to become an every-person millionaire too. I’ve watched a few webinars myself, and stopped just short of punching my credit card into a website… they can be that convincing.

But how did this seemingly self-inflicted epidemic of narcissistic expertise come about? And more importantly, is there a way to close this Pandora’s box, which is overflowing with #thoughtdogs, like some eating contest for our brains gone horribly wrong?

Everyone should have a voice, not a soapbox

The nature of the internet means that everyone can have a voice—which is truly, at its core, a beautiful thing. Where things can go awry is when everyone’s got a soapbox, we treat their opinions as facts. And, anyone shouting from one has the answers we crave. By simply stepping up on to our box and shouting, we’ve begun to believe that shouting is the same as mastery or expertise. Even if it’s something learned second or third hand. Even if it’s something that only just scratches the surface of wisdom. Even if we don’t know the consequences of treating these shouts as facts.

This surplus (and it’s truly a surplus) of genius thought leaders espousing wisdom at us from on high could be directly related to our growing inclination to close-mindedness. (This seems like a large leap, but bear with me for a second.)

I remember a time when politics could be discussed at a dinner party, without someone shutting down or screaming, just because the person sitting across from them voted for the other side. Or when healthy debate was possible, in a joint effort to get to the bottom of something, instead of just needing to be right.

If society now fosters a “take a side” approach, over “I’d rather not make a decision until I’ve researched all the facts/evidence” or “It’s not that black and white, let me investigate further”, then we are only going to accept those whose thoughts line up with our own, and ignore those who run counter. It’s why one side calls the news channels from the other “fake”, for example — because as a society we now tune out or put blinders on to anything that doesn’t suit our views, regardless of facts. We listen only to the thought leaders who align perfectly with our views, and they exist in abundance, there’s a thought leader for every view.

So we blindly listen if someone says something we believe to be true. We assume that the experts we choose to believe in have the answers, and we shut off to anything to the contrary. Our side has the experts, theirs has a bunch of slack-jawed shysters, after all.

Where did our collective curiosity go? Why is it thought to be a detriment to our businesses or brands if we don’t know something?

Pick a thought leader who aligns with your views

Oscar Wilde said that experts are ordinary people, away from home, giving advice. The internet seems to be an “away from home” for us all, since every website I look at that selling anything claims to know how to “fix” my business, double my revenue, plug my leaky funnel, or similar. If only I buy their consulting package or $2,999 course, only then can I actually unlock my potential and success. And if I don’t bite, then I obviously don’t care about money, success, small furry animals. (Seriously, look at every newsletter opt-in message lately – I have to either click YES I WANT REVENUE or NO I HATE PUPPIES and take a side).

Knowledge and expertise aren’t static. It’s preposterous to think any one person has all the answers… or even 1/50th of the answers. Everyone, regardless of their status as a thought leader or guru or expert, is just trying to get by in this world, just like everyone else — trying things, failing a bunch, and learning as they go. If they don’t seem like they are, they’ve just got really good marketing behind them.

For myself (see, I told you I’d circle back on this), I unintentionally built a personal brand by working for clients who were masters at personal branding. I leveraged that to create and sell information (courses, ebooks, and the like). Where I veered a little, thankfully, from gurudom is that I’ve always been ok with not having all the answers. I also suck at looking like I have my shit together (I don’t, I seriously don’t — and it’s way too tiring to pretend to).

I see the trends in expertise and personal brands, because my feet are firmly planted in that world, whether I want them to be or not (wearing socks that don’t match). I see what works, like selling the idea that business is so easy, look how easy it is, you can have an easy business too. Or the idea that there’s a few key things you’re missing, and if you just knew those few things, you’d be successful, and by the way here’s my course to sell you those things you’re missing.

My own 2c (from my soapbox)

For my own products and courses (none of which have ever been even close to $2,999), I take an opposite approach, even if it results in fewer sales or a smaller audience. I attempt to sell the idea that we need to ask better questions of ourselves and of our businesses. I attempt to sell the idea that we sometimes need a nudge or a push in a specific direction, based on experimentation (and here are the experiments you can try). I don’t sell the idea that I’m a thought leader or any kind of leader, or expert, or guru. I try not to, at least. That seems like it’d be a false claim of wisdom on my part. Like I know more than the people I reach. I try to lean more towards thoughtful than leader, most of the time. And sure, there are a few areas I’ve spent years learning about, but as I mentioned, what I know isn’t static, and the only gains I make are because I routinely assume there’s more I don’t know than what I do know. I treat expertise as focused curiosity, on a specific topic, not an all-knowing answer I’ve got that you don’t.

I’d also rather you didn’t pick sides. I’d rather you not be with me or against me. You can unsubscribe without hating puppies, I promise. Seriously, agree with some things, disagree with others. Hell, I even disagree with some things I say or write after time passes. I’m still learning and growing and figuring my own shit out. There’s no army of minions to join here, just a loose grouping of people who are interested in learning about similar topics and who will come to their own, probably varied conclusions.

Finally, I’m not even saying the way I do business or approach selling information is the right way to do it, or that the people that do things the way I described above are wrong or unethical. If you want to be a guru, you’re free to be one. (It’s just a single step after all! $2,999 not even required.) There’d be no judgement from me. Investigate all of this further if you’d like, since nothing I’ve said is fact. It’s just me, standing on a soapbox, sharing my “expert opinion” in this all-you-can-eat #thoughtdog buffet.

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