If you want to make a difference in your field, start by asking who and where people look to for answers and how you are going to change this.

Recently, someone referred to me as a thought leader and this complement, whilst said with all the kindest of intentions, made me wince a little bit. There’s a difference between being confident in your voice and being the superior voice.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, a thought leader is a person ‘whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential.’ On the one hand, thought leaders stimulate debate over issues and provide distinctive perspectives, for example, Atul Gawande and his reflections on medicine. On the other hand, thought leaders can reinforce the status quo, as explored by David Sessions in this article.

The problem with the idea of thought leadership is that it implies a hierarchy over knowledge production. In addition, to be a thought leader requires legitimacy from a majority. This begs the question whether the defining characteristic of ‘leadership’ is originality of thought or the quantity of supporters.

An interlinking theme in my work has been to disrupt the knowledge hierarchies in international development, by challenging who has the legitimacy to contribute to knowledge production in the sector. Last year, for example, I worked with European Development Days, an international development forum organised by the European Commission, to create an online platform for young development practitioners. I have been fortunate to travel the world and work with young people who fill crucial gaps in public policy through their innovations. However, they are often called to participate at global forums as experts on ‘youth issues’ without giving credence to their expertise which is determined by their genius, grit, resourcefulness and tremendous effort.

The Young Leaders for Development platform is one of my attempts to dispel the monopoly of ‘thought leadership’ within international development.  This space is a platform for young practitioners around the world to continuously share what they are learning in their practice.  It is fascinating to see how much this space has grown in just one year and the plurality of knowledge and voices you can find there.

As with knowledge production trends on the internet, the ‘thought leaders’ in global development are the people with access to and influence over knowledge production and consumption processes in the field. The issue isn’t who is classified as a thought leader (incredibly intelligent and hardworking people) but rather why they tend to be the same types of people, as this ranking by ThinkLab shows. There are several structural factors which can explain this, briefly outlined below:

  • the history of international development and the implication for knowledge production processes
  • the dominant perceptions of reality (ontology)
  • the dominant definitions of knowledge (epistemology)
  • the global trends of knowledge production, specifically in the avenues of social media, traditional media, and publishing.
  • gender and racial inequalities in knowledge production within international development
  • language
  • an ability to ‘talk the talk’ (grammar, lexicon, jargon, issue focus, reasoning, communication style);
  • and the extent to which the individual commands the above factors.


Redefining thought leadership

It has been a little over one year since I launched this space and it has been read by more than 100,000 people. Something extraordinary has also been happening. I’ve been approached by people from various fields who want to ‘Dig Deeper’. People working in politics, international public policy, medicine, neuroscience, philosophy, social activism, academia, business, and conflict resolution.

Their reasons for wanting to ‘Dig Deeper’ fall mainly in four categories:

  • They want an iterative practice, a defined space or set of tools to refine their work.
  • They want regenerative habits to explore the world. They want to adopt behaviours that challenge them to ask questions, take risks, and embrace uncomfortable realities in their fields.
  • They want to link their work to the bigger movement of social change because they believe their field contributes to social change.
  • They want to communicate in a way that connects various audiences to their field and the bigger quest for social change.


Towards collective ‘thought leadership’ – Digging Deeper for Social Change

I took some time last month to reflect on the next step of my journey in Digging Deeper and read around new methodologies of learning and thinking that are useful for 21st century problem solving. In addition to doing, writing and learning, I want to continue to disrupt the idea of thought leadership.

Over the next year, I will be working with 100 practitioners, on an individual basis, who want to write, document or share their insights on global issues. The aim is to facilitate more diverse and interdisciplinary insights on global challenges by having more people doing, learning, and sharing. I will spend up to three hours with you, via a virtual session, to explore what your field needs and what you need to get started. You do not necessarily have to start a blog like me or work in international development – it depends on what is needed in your field to challenge the way knowledge is produced and/or consumed.

I have set up a short form here where you can register for the one to one sessions and I will get back to you. For now, these sessions will be in English so you do require a basic knowledge of English to get something useful out of it. If you have additional questions, please contact me via my contact form.

Let’s get to work. 🙂