My first problem with so many people focusing on “thought leadership” is the myriad of people (and organizations) who confer the title on themselves — rather than understanding that, to be a thought leader, one must be considered such by others.
But my bigger problem with the concept is that, in my opinion, it focuses too much on the individual and fails to recognize, appreciate and encourage what I call ‘collaborative co-creation,’ where more than one person comes together to create something greater than they could have alone.
History is full of examples where great philosophers, artists and scientists worked together or inspired each other (either collaboratively or competitively): Michelangelo, already a revered master, was challenged anew by the upstart Raphael; and Sir Isaac Newton stated, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
Eli Whitney did not invent the cotton gin. Versions of it had been around for years. What he did was improve the design; but it is worth noting that others were working on improvements at the same time; and one, John Barcley, was even granted a patent on his slightly different version.
Alexander Bell was racing against advancements by Thomas Edison when he invented the first working telephone, although Elisha Grey also filed a patent on the same day (he lost his claim in court).
Speaking of Edison, not only did he collaborate — for a time — with Nikola Tesla (who ought to be far more remembered for his inventions than the automobiles that bear his name) he also in no way invented the incandescent lightbulb. He did find a superior material for the filament, but that again was not in isolation.
Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach together designed the first four-wheel automobile with a four-stroke engine, but others — including Benz, Peugeot, etc — were also coming close. But prior to that, a number of versions with fewer wheels and different power were already on the scene.
And then there’s Orville and Wilbur Wright — the first team (!) to fly a heavier-than-air machine. But their efforts started by going back all the way to the drawings of Leonardo DaVinci and built extensively on Otto Liliental’s work with gliders. The Wrights deserve credit for what they did — they solved the issue of stability by changing the shape of the wings while turning the rudder (something they observed from birds in flight) — but again, they were a team.
My point is simply this: The focus on the individual misses the important point that collaboration and even competition between people often provides the spark and the impetus for transformational change. Today, in the 21st century, we have the unique opportunity afforded by the Internet for like-minded people to work together despite geographic distances, time zone changes and even languages. So, instead of Florencebeing the nexus for the new Renaissance, it can and should be the virtual world. Who knows, while people are trying to come up with great thoughts on their own, there may be someone, half a world away (or across the street) who can offer the missing piece that will turn their idea into a workable solution.
After all, I doubt Orville and Wilbur worried about which of their names came first on the patent or in history books — as long as it was Wright.
John Friedman is Sustainability Manager at WGL. Prior to that, he headed corporate responsibility communications for Sodexo worldwide. He is an award-winning communications professional and internationally recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years’ experience in internal and… [Read more about John Friedman]