As a lifelong learner and chronic observer, I love the discussions and debates that take place around the terms thought leadership and expert. Some insist that unless you present yourself to the world with one of those labels, you’re not really legitimate. And the material you present isn’t really valid. You’re not valuable or a professional.  You’re not worthy.

Is this really true?

What exactly IS thought leadership anyway? I remember when I first heard that term about 10 years ago and actually raised a skeptical eyebrow. Okay, I think I even snickered to myself. The person who used the term was so full of himself it was painful to be in his presence. The term “pompous ass” comes to mind.  I was very turned off by his ego and sense of self-importance. So let’s just say it wasn’t a positive first exposure to the phrase.

And what precisely do you have to do to call yourself an expert? Some say you’re golden as soon as you’ve put in the obligatory 10,000 hours in your field. Does that mean you get to stop trying, learning, growing at that very moment? What if you learn faster? Or slower? Or are terrible at expressing your thought leadership so people can actually understand it? Who gets to decide?

I wrote a post last year where I contemplated this.  In doing research for a workshop, I also saw that studies reveal only about two to five percent of our “original” ideas are truly ours. The rest come as a result of something we’ve learned, heard, or read.  Very few thoughts are actually original thoughts. They are likely someone else’s discoveries (or are they?), but they are colored and filtered by our minds and experiences.

Hence (you knew this was coming), the supreme value of having a diverse, powerful, generous, equally curious, and supportive network, team or tribe on your side and at your disposal.

Along those lines, I loved this article that appeared in the New York Times in July 2014, “The End of Genius.”  I’m also fascinated by “The Myth of the Lone Genius” which states that very few innovators, both in our time and over the course of history, came up with their ideas alone. All of them left their laboratories, studios, and isolated garrets to converse, socialize, share, and collaborate with others. In some cases, they even stole each others ideas. Billy Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything (one of my favorite books) offers a glimpse of this rampant IP theft over the years in a fascinating and even amusing way.  And have you ever read about The Wednesday 10,? The Wall Street Journal published a wonderful piece on this group of collaborative business leaders several years ago.  Could they have accomplished as much as they did sitting alone in their offices? Unlikely. I often use this group as an example of how putting together your own highly-curated and customized networking group can be one of the most powerful things you could ever do for your career.

Maybe I’m a skeptic. Or just questioning (in a healthy way) what I see before me on social media: hundreds of people claiming to be experts and thought leaders.  I’ve used the term myself, but it just feels weird and unnatural to me.

My point (if you haven’t already gotten it): Before you consider calling yourself an expert or a thought leader – and when you hear someone else refer to themselves either with of those terms — ask the question:  “Is it YOU who developed the knowledge and wisdom you/they share? Or is it the compound and exponential total of your desire to learn, read, absorb, observe, curate, and be positively influenced and built up by the people, ideas, and intelligence in your world?  And if the answer is the latter, then do you see how important, invaluable and irreplaceable that world is?

I welcome your (ahem) thoughts – even your arguments – on this topic. Please share them in the Comment section below.