Time to Put 'Leader' Back in 'Thought Leadership'

More than 1 million people list "thought leader" on their LinkedIn profiles. So many thoughts! So much leadership.


An old friend and colleague from the Wall Street Journal, George Anders, tweeted last week that "More than 1 million people list 'thought leader' on their LinkedIn profiles." In his mordant way, George added, "So many thoughts! So much leadership."

George, currently senior editor at large at LinkedIn, where he writes about interesting trends in work and the work force, included a link to an AI that might make a passable replacement for many of those self-designated thought leaders. See if you can tell which of these observations came from the AI and which from a white paper written by a "thought leader":

  • "Base + low-to-medium uncertainty will emphasize the idea that you can have a high-to-medium certainty that X will happen, but a low-to-high certainty that Y will."
  • "It's not about 'I'll show you how to work' or 'I'll show you how to code' or 'I'll give you the ball' or 'I'll take care of all of that for you' or 'I'll guide you in all of that.' It's about 'I'll guide you in all those areas and more.'"
  • "Evolving risks have impacted the daily operations of insurance carriers worldwide and carriers are handling a rising volume of insurance claims, which is taxing human resources and, in many instances, demanding improved industry methodology."

If you guessed that the final example, the insurance-specific one, came from an actual human, you win. That example took a real insight—that risks are evolving, and claims are increasing, so insurers need new skills and methodologies—and simply fuzzed up the thought with corporate-speak, while the AI just sort of swam in circles. But, at least to my eyes and ear, the "thought leader" didn't outpace the AI by much. 

There are loads of actual thought leaders in the insurance world, and I highlight as many of them as I can on the ITL platform. But it feels to me like lots of companies and people aren't even trying to get past the buzzwords. Much of what I read these days talks blithely of transformation and disruption, then tosses in a few references to customer-centricity, sprinkles on some fairy dust about AI, blockchain, the IoT or robotic process automation and declares the industry's problems solved.

And don't get me started about the linguistic exertions that companies go through to try to make it sound like they're innovating left, right and center, when they're mostly in same-old, same-old mode. Some white papers I see use the word "new" so often that the writer must get a bonus for every time it appears. My (least) favorite is the frequent talk of "new innovations"—as opposed to old innovations. "Proactively" is a close second to "new." Almost all verbs are actions, but companies puff up reports by adding the adverb "actively," so we know that they're actively taking their actions. That no longer seems to be enough, so "pro-" gets added for emphasis—companies are actively, actively taking their actions.

I realize that innovation in insurance has hit a bit of a plateau. Some of the really radical ideas, such as peer-to-peer funding, haven't proved practical at scale. There hasn't yet been an invasion by Big Tech, because of the insurance industry's regulation and heavy capital requirements. Even the ferment in the insurtech movement has settled some—investment continues to climb but is increasingly focused more narrowly, on the companies that seem to be emerging as winners.

But, having watched digital innovation up close since the early days of the personal computer, I assure you that the journey in insurance is just beginning—and will move a lot faster if we commit to moving beyond the buzzwords and self-congratulatory verbiage and collaborate on real insights.

We need people like Jon Picoult and Barry Rabkin to keep us honest—Jon recently wrote about his bold prediction for the customer experience, that companies will talk a lot and not do much, while Barry wrote that, on a scale of 1 to 10, innovation in the industry this year won't exceed a 2. 

We also need to push deeper into the buzzwords, so we see what's working and what isn't, and as an industry can see where to try next—such as in this piece on three use cases emerging for blockchain, or my own attempt on a blockchain update earlier this month.

Now isn't the time to pat ourselves on the back for how far we've come. Now is the time to take what we've learned and build on it.

Otherwise, we'll just be stuck with transforming the industry by proactively producing new innovations.


Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll

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Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is the editor-in-chief of Insurance Thought Leadership.

He is also co-author of A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the Future We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050 and Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn From the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and the author of a best-seller on IBM, published in 1993.

Carroll spent 17 years at the Wall Street Journal as an editor and reporter; he was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. He later was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.


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