Leadership is a Tricky Thing

Rodin's The Thinker 0839Today’s Chiropractic LifeStyle is introducing a new section in this issue that explores thought leadership. While this is a term you may be familiar with, thought leadership is a new concept for many people. Through this section of TCL, you will be introduced to the ways thought leadership in Chiropractic, healthcare, education and social change is emanating from Life University, its people and its programs.

Once you start looking for thought leadership, you will see examples throughout Life University. In virtually every area of LIFE, exciting, creative and change-oriented thinking drives everything from academic programs to physical facilities to planning the future of the University. Life University’s Octagon is an excellent example of how thought leadership is being developed, implemented and acted upon within our community and beyond.

But before examining the evidence of thought leadership at work, perhaps an orientation to the characteristics and features associated with leadership in general, and thought leadership in particular, will set the stage for a deeper understanding of its contribution to society.

What is Thought Leadership?

Leadership is a tricky thing. Perhaps one of the most straightforward examples of leadership involves the military. As a baby boomer, when I think of leadership in this context, names like General Eisenhower, General Patton or General Westmoreland come to mind. When I think of political leadership, President Kennedy leaps to the forefront of my thoughts as a person I clearly remember in this role. Military leadership and political leadership are rather structured systems that rely on leaders asserting a “follow me” perspective and others taking an “I am with you” role.

Thought leadership is very different. When the term was first coined in 1994 by the editor-in-chief of Strategy & Business, it was used to describe people in business whose ideas deserved attention. As it is used and understood today, it implies a far less structured and far more egalitarian circumstance than simply being a good businessperson.

Very few people have the potential to be President of the United States, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or president of a major corporation, but anyone can be a thought leader. Thought leadership is, in fact, antithetical to most of the structures of current society. The more people identify with a structured approach to leadership, the less likely they are to value and assert their own ideas. In contrast, thought leadership is based in the hearts and minds of anyone and everyone who has an idea and who is bold enough to speak it and advocate it. It is about the value of the thought, rather than the position of the person.

We think of a leader as being the person at the head of the pack—whether the pack is an industry, a corporation or an army. But thought leaders emerge from the pack and have the temerity to think, speak and act on the idea that there may be another way—a better way—to approach a situation, circumstance, problem or opportunity. Thought leaders by their very nature have a tendency toward irreverence, radicalness and rebelliousness. The challenge is to put forward a radical or rebellious idea in a manner and at a time when it can be heard, appreciated, grown and acted upon.

Thought leaders seek to change the status quo, and very often traditional leadership roles seek to secure the status quo. Think of what has been referred to as the “Arab Spring” and the conflict that existed between the thought leaders and the traditional leaders of the day. In Egypt, President Mubarak sought to hold on to his power and control in Egyptian society while the thought leaders of the day emerged from the masses using social media as their thought-distribution system.

In a less militaristic comparison, consider the emergence of personal computing as an illustration of traditional thought versus thought leadership. The computing world’s traditional leadership perspective expressed in 1977 by the president of Digital Equipment Corporation was that “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Then think about Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak approaching Atari and then Hewlett-Packard about their garage-based invention, only to be dismissed by HP because they had yet to graduate from college.

Thought leadership is not about position, accomplishments, status or wealth. Thought leadership is about creativity and boldness. Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Thought leadership is about changing the level of the thinking.

The world of thought leadership begins with dialogue and honest discussion. It is about distilling a situation to yield its essence, and then responding to the essence and not to the distractions that arise as we get to that point. We all go through this process. For some, the dialogue is with other people; for some, the medium is the written word; and for others, it is the arts that serve to alter the patterns of their thoughts and, therefore, their actions. The goal of it all is to get to better questions. Better questions yield better thinking, and better thinking yields better questions.

Seth Godin, author of “Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us,” speaks eloquently about thought leadership and the personal responsibility we have to be thought leaders. He also is the person who has clearly detailed the role and value of the “first followers” of the leader. The first followers change the “leader” from a “lone nut” to a leader. But the lone nut must first speak his or her point of understanding that helps to elevate the level of thought to the point where it has the potential to change the world.

LIFE’s Initiatives for Thought Leadership

Life University has recognized the value and need for thought leadership in Chiropractic, in healthcare and in society in general. One acknowledgement of the need has been the formation of a center, known as “The Octagon,” dedicated to “seeking to create world-changing dialogue on healthcare and the human endeavor.” The Octagon, an extension of Life University’s Eight Core Proficiencies, was conceived and brought into existence in 2008 by University president Guy F. Riekeman, D.C., as a place for the chiropractic profession, in particular, to engage in collegial dialogue as a means of elevating its thinking. Throughout its history, the chiropractic profession has struggled to have its ideas, perspectives, practices and protocols recognized and accepted. All too often the profession dealt with its circumstances from a safety and survival vantage point. The profession did not have the luxury and privilege of taking a step back and seeing itself in a broader context. The Octagon seeks to change this circumstance by providing the human, financial and physical resources to support the exploration of questions important to the profession and to the larger society.

This exploration on the part of The Octagon and Life University has important implications to the future of the chiropractic profession and beyond. For example, the first formal initiative of The Octagon examined contemporary perspectives on Vitalism in healthcare. This effort brought people from a range of disciplines and several countries to exchange their thoughts on a contemporary 21st century view of Vitalism as a new way of looking at problems in healthcare in search of better solutions. This opening salvo was followed in 2011 with an examination of contemporary scientific paradigms as they relate to healing, healthcare and Chiropractic in particular. The work from this conference continues as the consensus statements developed are refined, expanded and efforts toward implementation are considered. In 2012, The Octagon will focus on the implications of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA) on disciplines outside the mainstream views of medicine and the potential for those disciplines to bring disruptive innovations to the current system of healthcare in the United States. This discussion will be held within days of the consideration of various aspects of the PPACA legislation by the United States Supreme Court and has the potential to be a pivotal gathering regarding the implementation of elements of the legislation or translation of its reform ideas into the private sector. The initial plans for Octagon 2013 have already been developed to take an in-depth look at the attitudes, perspectives and beliefs of the millennial generation—with the “new” baby boomers’ relationship to healthcare. Will our children teach us something new, or will they repeat the errors their parents made with respect to health and healthy living?

Another acknowledgement on the part of Life University of the need for different thinking in our world is reflected in the design and campus activities of Life University itself. The implementation of best-in-class practices in facilities design has allowed the University to develop award-winning student housing, campus services and academic facilities resulting in the achievement of Gold status by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) program in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

These are just two examples of important initiatives of Life University, altering the quality of the discourse in our sphere of influence and helping elevate the thinking of the people actualizing the efforts of Life University. These are also examples of critical actions steps that emanate from an environment that embraces thought leadership in daily living.

If dialogue is the environment of thought leaders then information is their currency. The availability of information has allowed men and women across the ages to better understand needs and then fill them. In this moment in time, with a $200 computer and a $10-a-month Internet service provider, the average man or woman has access to more information than anyone or any group that ever previously existed on the planet. For us today, access is available to more information than it was to the greats of all history. But, like any other form of currency, it is not about having the currency or holding the currency; it is about what one does with the currency. The same vehicle of information access now becomes the vehicle for thought generation and distribution. The only things holding us back as individuals and as societies from exercising our potential for thought leadership is going back to our outdated, outmoded perceptions of what it is to be a leader.

Thought leadership is what has changed humankind since the beginning of time. It is the greatest resource any of us will ever hold and it is the greatest gift any of us can give the world. Be bold, change the world with your thoughts and join us as we seek to provide the leadership so desperately needed in the world.