Let’s kill Zombie Thought Leadership

Paul Bowers
6 min readFeb 20, 2024

I’ve never liked ‘Thought Leadership’ — the cultural phenomenon, not any particular person or idea. I couldn’t quite work out why, until I read Haslam, Alvesson & Reicher’s Zombie leadership: Dead ideas that still walk among us. Their article is great:

[leadership is undermined by] a strong residual commitment to an older set of ideas which have been repeatedly debunked but which nevertheless resolutely refuse to die. These, we term zombie leadership. Zombie leadership lives on not because it has empirical support but because it flatters and appeals to elites, to the leadership industrial complex that supports them, and also to the anxieties of ordinary people in a world seemingly beyond their control.

And I am now applying the logic in their article to ‘Thought Leadership’. There is no empirical evidence that gorging ourselves on the words of Thought Leaders makes us more successful professionals. Thinking for yourself is a better investment: in your own ways, in your own contexts, with your own people.

I’ll summarise, in their format, what I see as the features and impacts of Zombie Thought Leadership, then expand on them below. (There’s a readble github version of this table at the end).

Zombie Thought Leadership summarised. Github version at the end, because Medium formats tables badly

I’m arguing we should treat the notion of “Thought Leadership” with more scepticism. The podcasts and TED talks of the last fifteen years have not made our workplaces smarter (kinder, more purposeful), nor slowed the enshittification of the infrastructure we rely on — whether physical or digital.

Let me define my terms. There are many Thoughts. Some come from rigorous academic study, others come from lived experience such as a manager with a case study or an Olympic athlete. I’d argue these are true leaders sharing expertise, underscored by some sort of validation system which in my examples would be peer review, corporate metrics/continued employment, and a medal won from rivals. But that isn’t what I mean by capital T, capital L Thought Leadership, which

  • pronounces confidently as if speaking gospel — no evidence necessary
  • implies universal applicability
  • operates within a trend cycle (for example, Design Thinking was the Thought that was Led, and then Human Centred Design was the Thought that was Led. But both are simply ‘Design’ done well)
  • is actively promoted within a culture of linkedin posts and ‘leadership breakfasts’
  • places the majority into the role of non-thinking followers

Expanding on the axioms above…

ZTL Axioms 1–4: Thought Leaders have special qualities and backgrounds, and have uniquely valuable Thoughts

Thought Leadership destroys personal thinking. Thoughts are handed down to a receptive audience, who are encouraged to simply apply the Thoughts in order to succeed. Context is dismissed, as is style. ‘Think about it — and do it — my way’, the Thought Leader says. If it doesn’t work, you haven’t understood the Thought correctly. Individuals are left believing ‘Who am I to think for myself? It’s already been Thought before’.

Thought Leadership undermines group success. It’s been shown many times that collective thinking beats individual thinking. Even the most recent genius hagiography, Oppenheimer, shows a collective thinking environment. It’s clearly his ability to shape a process and bring the right people together that leads to the (albeit devastating and morally suspect) successful technical outcome.

Thought Leadership is highly associated with power. To be anointed as such, you must be a senior leader, usually in business, and have a series of titles, badges or backgrounds. CEO, Harvard, Private sector. Wealthy. White. Male. But power does not create better thinkers, nor is it evidence of better thinking. To enable all people to think better, power should be removed from our paradigms of good thinking.

ZTL Axiom 5: Thought Leadership is a distinct activity (valid, useful, necessary) across all contexts

Thought Leadership has an unstated but very specific context. It’s springing from an individualistic culture of commercial business — for which ‘McKinsey-land’ would be a useful shorthand. The cultural hegemony of these ideals leads to other systems of thinking — public value over profit, public service over private profit, Ministries over Musks — being undervalued.

Great thoughts do not create great action across all contexts. A dentist is not very useful when I sprain my ankle. I would go to a physiotherapist or a doctor. Why do we persist in applying Thought Leaders such as Collins and Mitzenberg in every strategy retreat — other (collective, divergent) forms of thinking might be more useful?

ZTL Axiom 6–8: Professional require it, work involves applying Thoughts and Leadership is only Thought Leadership.

Professional work (management, leadership, directing…) is a craft, not a science. It exists at an intersection of thoughts, values, feelings and relationships. It is closer to the work of the craft carpenter, or guitarist, or baker. Best practice — the ‘correct’ way is known and understood. But in the moment, the flow of the materials, how it feels, how it responds, more important. Best practice is practiced over time, not in an instant. Thought Leadership precludes the specific craft of applying ourselves to people and material in a specific time and space.

Thought Leadership undermines Feeling Leadership and Values Leadership. There is a place for emotion, whimsy, instinct, experimentation. Leadership involves being open to being wrong, to being corrected, to failure.

Not everything can be squeezed into a rational frame. Thought Leadership says that a framework set by historic hegemonies (the Enlightenment, colonial capitalism) are the correct systems within with to think and act. To quote my inspiring article again, their view on Leadership applies equally to Thought Leadership:

[there is a] grandiosity among both leaders and those in the leadership industry … Together they have cultivated a fantasy that leadership is the stuff of big statements, glamorous events, elite qualifications, and showcase awards — not the humdrum stuff of listening to people’s problems, helping out, meeting deadlines, and creating a positive atmosphere.

ZTL Axiom 9–10: Thought Leadership is static, while manufacturing and valorising novelty

Thought Leadership simply needs to be applied, right? Take the wisdom and just do it. But also, as it floods airport bookshelves and our LinkedIn feed, it is also all new: you’d better read all this before you can be good Or great. So we lurch from Thought to Thought, applying as we are told to.

But every system, every challenge, every person that we encounter is new and unique. Thought Leadership tells us Thoughts are both static — ‘you should know this’ — and ever-changing — ‘you need to know this new thing first’ — so we are paralysed. You have got to think for yourself, which is what Thought Leadership inhibits.

Thought Leadership is a noun (al phrase). But we must be verbs. ThinkERS who are ThinkING.

ZTL Axiom 11: Thought Leadership is singular. But there are many Thoughts

When did you ever apply just one Thought? When was there a perfect single model that you could apply to a situation and have it work perfectly? Never.

We are always applying many thoughts, and systems of thought, all at once. Professional life does not occur under experimental conditions: one independent variable, one dependent variable, and the answer is g=9.81 m/s2

My Media Studies professor told me, take what’s useful from every theory and every writer, and then write YOUR essay with YOUR thoughts.

Thought Leadership should be replaced with Thought Lego — tiny bricks you assemble your way to make what you need.

Towards an Ecology of Thinking to replace Zombie Thought Leadership

I hope it’s clear my issue isn’t with any one individual. There is inspirational and useful stuff out there (I love Collins). My issue is the pernicious effect on those outside the hegemonising Thought Leadership mindset.

Nancy Kline’s incredible book Time to Think describes the quality and value of thought that anyone can achieve when thinking for themselves. And she outlines, backed up by case studies and academic research, that there are behaviours and cultures that can be built to enable better thinking. Her Thinking Environment is the gold standard for creating good thinking, based on such tenets as

  • giving the thinker attentive uninterrupted listening
  • engaging clearly with reality, not assumptions
  • asking kind supporting questions that open the field for further thinking
  • allowing emotions to arise, exist and decline naturally, without critique or dismissal.

I have been applying this in recent facilitation and mentoring work. It is the most powerful set of techniques — embodying an attitude of listening — I have encountered for helping others thrive.

I suggest we might cultivate an open ecology of Thinkings to supplant Thought Leadership. I would want a new name, encompassing collective, open, reflective and contextual. Which is quite a mouthful. But it’s something like ‘Thinking Cultivation’.

In summary:

  • Be sceptical of the Zombie of Thought Leadership
  • Think for yourself. Trust your thoughts. Trust yourself.
  • Work hard to encourage others to think. It will enrich us all.

PS — Medium is so poor for including tables. I know the picture of Zombie Thought Leadership axioms above may not be legible for all, so here’s another version.