A little more than two years ago, I began publishing blogs on LinkedIn Pulse. The audience I gained as a result of those blogs helped me start my own company, and led to having this column on Inc.

And, because using LinkedIn the way I did is rare--but not impossible--I have been occasionally referred to as a "thought leader."

(Side note: I have also been called an idiot. Point being, if you are going to believe that the people who call you a "thought leader" are telling you the truth, you must also consider the fact that the people who call you an idiot are also telling you the truth.)

That said, the term "thought leader" makes me cringe--even when it's applied to people who are far more deserving of it than I am.

Here's why:

1. On the scale of obnoxiousness, it's one step below speaking in the third person.

Dustin dislikes the term "thought leader" because Dustin associates it with people who write blatantly simplistic lists of things that in no way reflect how the real world functions.

Dustin does understand the irony of this post coming in the form of a list. Were Dustin to consider himself a "thought leader," he might have come up with a better way to write it, but he did not.

Dustin is disappointed in himself for this.

2. The term "thought leader" is further evidence that we are devaluing important words.

A couple of weeks ago, I--along with a lot of other people--watched the unveiling of the iPhone 7.

Honestly, though I own an iPhone, my main motivation was that I thought the unveiling would provide me with an opportunity to sharpen my sarcasm skills.

And the event did not disappoint, particularly when Apple executive Phil Schiller used the word "courageous" to describe removing a headphone jack.

Up until that moment I thought the word "courage" was a special word, used primarily to describe things that were actually courageous--like firefighters who go into a burning building when everyone else is exiting, soldiers who refuse to leave the wounded behind, or even people who are willing to risk a lot for an unpopular stance that they believe in.


It turns out that you can use it to describe the fairly mundane task of making a product worse while simultaneously creating an expensive, easily lost accessory.

(Actually, making a product worse and calling it "courageous" is, in a way, its own form of courage. It's like some type of meta-courage that makes my head hurt.)

The term "thought leader" is a similar devaluing of words.

For example, is knowing how to use social media a useful skill?

It can be.

Does knowing how to use social media make you a "thought leader"?

Personally, I don't think so.

"Courageous" should be used to describe acts that demonstrate actual courage.

"Thought leader" should be used to describe important thoughts that demonstrate actual, true leadership.

3. Real thought leaders would never use the term "thought leader."

Even if LinkedIn had existed then, I don't think you would have seen the following:

Abraham Lincoln

"Lawyer, President, Emancipation Thought Leader"


Franklin D. Roosevelt

"President and New Deal Ninja"

True thought leaders, people who are really moving the world forward, don't use labels like "thought leader" or "ninja."

They let their work speak for itself.

Moving the world forward doesn't mean you have to be an Abraham Lincoln or a Franklin Roosevelt. But it does mean you are confident enough in yourself and what you are doing to allow others to determine whether you deserve a label like "thought leader."

Because once you start labeling yourself a "thought leader" or "ninja," you put yourself on a slippery slope.

Trust Dustin.

He knows.