Want To Be An Effective Thought Leader? Ignore President Obama

Updated: Oct 11, 2020

By Neil St. Clair

This article was originally published on Forbes.com (October 27, 2014)

No, this message isn't political. In fact, I'll admit right now (without giving away my party affiliation should I have one), that I was a hook-line-and-sinker hope-and-changer and voted for President Obama...twice. But while hope is a great perception, without a bold activator at the helm filled with a bit of hellfire, it's a poor reality. So if you're creating thought leadership with the hope of converting clients, and changing hearts and minds, heed my warning and do not pull a President Obama. This applies to entrepreneurs especially, who are often trying to build a convertible following, but goes for c-level executives and marketers as well.  To avoid the President's pitfalls, you must do the following:

1) No Fence-Sitting: Have Strong, Identifiable Opinions

2) Take Proper Advantage of the Bully Pulpit

Obama has rarely done any of this during the past six years—evidenced by an unwillingness to call the Benghazi Embassy incident a terrorist attack and his use of the State of the Union to appeal to policy wonks rather than eviscerate Senate Republicans' obstinacy—and, as such, has lost much of his support. Do not let this happen to you.

In short, whenever you're creating thought leadership, avoid the anodyne and evince a strong opinion that can be repeated easily by others, take clear sides supported by evidence, be contrarian (but not for the sake of being contrarian), and do not compromise.

Better to Be Black & White Than 50 Shades of Gray 

Having to sort through to find your point, should it exist, means you've already lost.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, no one would doubt President Obama's an intelligent man. But where the press, the public, and his own party (and your author) have found fault is with his professorial, objective, and dispassionate pursuit of politics. He's fallen victim to what rhetoricians might call argumentum ad temperantiam or the "Argument to Moderation" fallacy—meaning that sometimes taking a compromise position isn't the right course, and falling to a strong side is both logical and correct.

Now let me be clear, being thoughtful is a positive in both politics and the professional world. Formulating ideas and hypotheses is a necessity before taking action or publishing your theory. Do not go off half-cocked. But, in order to push your thought leadership's message forward, or in Obama's case, to go down in the positive light of history, you need to be willing to take risks. Simply put, have a decisive opinion.

Despite a towering intellect, Gore Vidal never rallied a crowd. So save the intellectual circumnavigation for the Ivory Tower. Forget trying to please all, focus on your core, and feel free to call your opponents on their shortcomings, and it's okay to be a bit bold and colorful to illustrate your point's validity.

As a constituent, Id' be ever so pleased if Obama strode to the podium in the Rose Garden and with pure, unadulterated zeal castigated the lights out of the current do-nothing Congress. Would things change? Would he win any new friends? Tough to say, but speaking for myself, I'd be darn proud that he'd at least be pointing out reality and taking a stand. And I'd wager a guess that many in the silent majority would rally to his clarion call. Instead, he's distant and delegates as this New York Times piece pointed out ("Obama Is Seen as Frustrating His Own Party")

As a thought leader, you cannot fall into this trap of intellectual delegation—bereft of conviction for the cause. Yes, being daring and having a strong opinion is a calculated risk. But it's a risk well worth taking to gain an activated and engaged audience that will ultimately have a higher probability of converting to a client.

How do we know this?

Look at the published work of scholars Zaccaro, Kemp, & Bader, 2004 describing "Trait Leadership" theory. They developed what's called the "Big-Five Personality Model," and it points to a few characteristics with higher "correlation coefficients" for effective leadership—a fancy way of saying that these traits help predict successful leadership outcomes—whether in deed or thought. They are:

1) Charisma

2) Creativity & Openness (i.e. non-conventional)

3) Extraversion (i.e. assertive and energetic)

These characteristics point to one conclusion for our purposes: To be an effective thought leader, one must be willing to take charge, think in different ways, and convince with bold and provocative rhetoric.

Obama, despite a candidacy to the contrary, has not always exhibited these characteristics as President. Hence, the tumbling approval rating.

Take Advantage of the Opportunity & Say Something 

Obama's lack of strong, asserted opinions have helped him fail in the leadership space, but this failure is also a function of his ability to create content that's consumable, engaging, and meaningful. One need only look at the geometrically dwindling ratings of his speeches as proof positive that what he's saying has, for want of a better phrase, become uninteresting. As a thought leader, you simply cannot be boring.

Why is this happening to the President?

Though he is one of the most televised and first truly social media savvy presidents, this over-developed media presence has been a symptom of his leadership malady. An extremely quotable candidate, he's lacked those signature moments and the necessary divisive passion when he's had control of the bully pulpit.

And over-exposure coupled with dull content does not an effective thought leader make. Look to Teddy Roosevelt or Winston Churchill, and you'll see masters of the rhetorical art—when they had the soapbox they made impactful statements that resonated and drove the conversation forward.

Yes, you may have an opinion on something, but everyone knows what opinions are like. So spouting-off often does little when you're not saying much or not saying it with fiery creativity and conviction. In this instance, over-communicating obfuscates, building a wall of white noise through which your true gems of thought leadership cannot be heard. So speak up when you have clear wisdom to offer punctuated with an obvious and compelling proposition.

As a polyglot Belgian tourist once told me on the New York subways regarding his linguistic skills, "It means nothing to speak many languages if you have nothing to say."

Summing Up

Perhaps the larger point of all this is that people, writ large, like simplicity—especially the media who can echo chamber your thought leadership like few others. In this way, President Obama has failed in the theater of politics. And while the substance of his work may prove right in the annals of history, the present perception of him as Professor President may have lost him the public's reality.

To sum, having to sort and sift to find your salient point, should it exist, means you've already lost. But by taking a strong side, and backing it up, helps lead your audience down the primrose path to client conversion.

Using myself as an example, one of my most successful Forbes articles to date was "How Digital Marketing is Destroying Your Business." I easily could have balanced this and tip-toed to a qualified and middling conclusion. Instead, I took a stand, with beliefs that I actually held and supported, and whether people loved or hated what I had to say, they were aware. A dialogue was begun. Ultimately, viewing the world through this particular lens opened up potential business relationships with comrades-in-thought. I did not fear recrimination.

While I can't prove the counterfactual, had I taken a more middle-ground approach, I believe it less likely for my work to have made a positive appeal to anyone. Yes, I surely won't do business with the folks that disagreed with me, but your thought leadership needs to appeal to your simpatico core, not those already entrenched in opposition.

Cross-apply this scenario to your own thought leadership creation and its marketing. Do you think your potential core clients will come on board if you provide only a shades-of-gray analysis, or will they be driven to action by some black-and-white firebrand rhetoric that informs and inspires? People are always searching for a true and clear value proposition or opinion with which they can identify. By taking a strong stance, you appeal to their psychology (see confirmation bias), and will make your thought leadership all the more effective.

Now if only President Obama would do the same.


Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation. Follow him on IG @neilstclair