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It was in 1982-83 that I first read Descartes’ famous Discourse on the Method. The illustration in that essay, of how to “rightly conduct the Reason”, made a lasting impression on my mind. By enquiring into the foundations of our knowledge, and building it up from first principles, that essay distinguishes the thinking activity from other mental processes such as memory, information representation and reproduction etc. In a sense, it demonstrates how we can direct our thinking towards discovery.

The Cartesian cogito – “I think, therefore I am” – was an answer to the search for a basis for human knowledge. It also associates the thinking activity as a fundamental characteristic of a select sub-species called homo sapiens sapiens.

As an aside, the earliest instance of such a species in India is said to have been near the Yaganti Caves (which get their name from Telugu for “I have seen”) in Andhra Pradesh. Overlooking the northern boundary of the Jurreru River Valley in Kurnool, is the Jwalapuram rock shelter site. It is among the longest continuous histories of stone blade tools in the world, and has personal ornaments and rock art to show.



Several tens of thousands of years later, philosopher Henri Bergson, early in the early 20th century, referred to the importance of the human faculty to “create artificial objects, in particular tools to make tools, and to indefinitely variate its makings.” In the Jurreru River Valley, as at other sites around the world, the commencement of cereal cropping, lesser dependence on hunting, and also the targeting of smaller game all contributed to a reduction in the manufacture of weapon blades. While the immediate threat to survival from other hostile specie has largely abated today, this creative and adaptive ability of homo faber (man, the creator) has gained in importance.  This ability develops as a result of both individual honing as well as peer interaction.


   Henri Bergson (1859-1941)


In an attempt to “lead” one’s life, we need to think of what our goals should be, what our preferences are, and reflect on our personal circumstances and options. So to enable ourselves to undertake meaningful, enhancing, corrective, remedial, rewarding actions – we need to think.

The greater the success with this, it will inspire some people to emulate us. Paraphrasing Nietzsche, it is easy to be admired for the results, yet so much harder for the methods to be understood.

In a world where increasingly we emphasise “skill-sets” pertaining to a narrowly defined set of tasks, and there is greater and greater specialisation, what will the generalists and the seers do?

Let’s take a look at those who get a college education. Consider, who among them might have the training and orientation to look at a half-century of history in perspective, and discern broad trends and compare two different decades?  The social scientists, I think, and not the engineer-MBAs.  To be able to strategically chart a way ahead, and to be able to intuitively see the future – this is an activity that will come more easily to a liberal arts graduate or a social scientist. To quote from New York newspapers, “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing,” - Steve Jobs of Apple.  Also, “Products must appeal to human beings, and a rigorously cultivated humanistic sensibility is a valued asset.” - Damon Horowitz of Google.

Can we try putting a finger on what this humanistic sensibility is like? Just walk down the street. The reactions to your physique, appearance, status and the rest of it are usually passively experienced by you. There’s not very much you can do about it, though you can use tactics to moderate those reactions, if that’s important.

Even as we are frantically trying to change the world around us, we are ourselves being cast into moulds and fitted into stereotype. What we own (Rolex watch, Mont Blanc pen, Audi car etc.), our body’s build, what we wear, what we look like, how we smell, our demeanour… all these are being registered, quickly processed, and reacted upon by people around us every nano-second. It’s not surprising then that gyms, parlours, coiffeurs, accessorisers, perfumers, couturiers and their battalions are flourishing in every constituency. 

What you are thinking ( if you are thinking) is inside your head and we don’t know about it until you find a form that gives your thought a shape. You can speak the thought, write it down, build something with it, and people around you can then turn their attention to your act. Your thinking and its communication (or other outcomes of your thinking, like a product, an objet d’art, commercial offering, humanitarian gesture, initiation of a public project) will then have influenced your immediate surroundings, to begin with.

It is possible that ideas occur to us because there is an ideal embedded within us. Thus, if we have a built-in equilibrium for harmony, we act to correct a discord. If we are tuned to an accurate pitch for justice, we act with seeming instinct against injustice. Besides this inner music-like calibration, there is also the active composer within us. We can conceive schemes and arrangements with grander, invigorating, more exalting, and pleasing structures and qualities.

It would be naïve to ignore the concepts of `ideology’ and `class consciousness’ which basically state that what you perceive and interpret is a result of your lived experience, and is always a viewpoint that furthers your immediate interest.

So we can formulate very different ideas about the nature of thought itself – ranging all the way from idealist to materialist.

We sometimes make a concerted effort to direct our thinking to analyse events around us or to understand an idea presented to us, Thanks to blogs and YouTube, you don’t have to be related to Murdoch to gain and engage an audience. But it’s also where we will need some talent and some training.  There is an art of describing and assessing situations. There is the use of technique in presenting an idea, particularly when one tries to voice it or write it down. There’s the knack of conducting conversations and building opinion around a topic or issue. Further, there’s the gift of projecting a range of possibilities and likely outcomes. Now all this is a repertory of skills that can be reinforced or aided by one’s appearance, affluence etc. but these skills can be considerably influential on their own.

Jamie McKenzie identifies three types of thinking that "operate concurrently and recursively" to help us construct meaning: envisioning what is possible; inventing, or innovating, possible courses of action; and rearranging ideas and information to create new possibilities.

Like some progressives have pointed out, there is a playoff between the “is” and the “ought”. Every description or list of features can be considered to carry an unstated lack – a sense of what’s missing. A crude analogy is that of a card player who wants a reshuffle. He expects to improve his prospects with a new deal.  Or he asks for it, because he believes there is an irregularity in the present scheme that will deny several players a fair chance.

So in a sense, a leadership role would perforce require a certain amount of thought. Can ideas wield the kind of influence that physical appeal or threat, the weight of affluence, or a dominant negotiating position are able to?

Some of us, who speak and write occasionally or even often, do so in order to communicate about ideas. These ideas are those that have recently occurred to us. Or these ideas may have been triggered because we are reflecting on some ideas that have come to our notice. Or perhaps they are simply ideas we read somewhere that excite us so much we want to share them and help propagate them. And there is an apparently independent question – how can the best ideas get adopted and make a bigger impact?  Llopis, who communicates regularly on this type of leadership says, “It’s no longer just about what you know, but what you do with what you know. It’s about trust, transparency, opening up your heart and leading with kindness. Thought leadership is another form of corporate social responsibility. It’s about leaving a legacy and earning the respect of your community.”

Motivating ideas, problem-solving ideas, and goal-setting ideas – these are always in demand. Those that are already in circulation fulfil a part of this demand. Even serving reminders of these existing ideas is a useful function. An idea that has once been formulated can then be presented, conveyed, and disseminated in many ways – with or without acknowledging a source.

As described in the Forbes magazine’s Jan 2011 issue, a thought leader is a `person who identifies trends, common themes and patterns within a particular industry or functional area of expertise to help others identify new opportunities or solutions for growth.’

While a chance to shape the future is an opportunity area for thought leaders, there is a threat area as well. Within an organisation’s procedures, it’s hard to curb or confine thinking styles. As Stalin’s purges highlighted so starkly, thinkers/intellectuals are very vulnerable as they are ranked high among threats to a prevailing order or coterie. If you are not the leader, it can be hazardous to be a thinker.  As Camus famously wrote, “To begin to think, is to begin to be undermined.”

 Martin Luther King Jr., whose dream woke up a nation.

Let’s take a quick look at when it is that people are most willing to follow a leader. It is when a set of circumstances is to be rejected, however overpowering or overbearing these are. When there’s still a hope that some stratagem or recourse is discoverable, which when found, will lead us beyond.  Was it mainly charisma that was at work when Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Nelson Mandela spearheaded movements with a massive following?  How much of thought leadership was influential in the sparking and fulmination of the French Revolution? How many were utopian visionaries, how many were underdogs turned belligerent, how many hated autocracy, and how many believed that a parliament with powers would work?

To put all of this together, the term “thought leadership” can operate at various levels. Ideas cannot be grown in private nurseries. It is inherently a process which is something that works best in the open, the way fruits grow on trees with so many chance factors at work – the wind, the pollinators, and the sunshine all playing a role.  So a thought leader of any serious mettle has to look beyond his clan, corporation and credo and engage with the world at large. It’s like the difference between a politician and a statesman. Equally, it’s about that thought leader’s willingness to have a culture where there is active encouragement for the ideation process, and for its most active participants.

In the words of Markus Amanto : “What makes a person who is into thought leadership special is that he can think of ideas that can be said to be revolutionary or are quite innovative by nature. It is also about being able to share that innovative idea with the world…… a thought leader is a confident person who has the ability to share what he has thought of despite any kind of criticism or negative reaction from those who may hear of it.”

A notable aspect in what Amanto says is that leaders are expected to anticipate and handle differences of viewpoints between people.

So we have here the entire gamut! For companies that seek to build a marketing edge, Thought Leadership has in it the potential to retain believers, investors and customers. At a higher level, it points the way to creating policies within an industry, society or nation that are to the greater benefit of various stakeholders, and the planet itself.