Thought Leadership

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Theodore Roosevelt "Ted" Malloch, who is reported to be Donald Trump's pick for ambassador to the EU, has been accused of inflating his resumé in various ways (Henry Mance, "Oxford distances itself from Trump favourite Malloch", Financial Times 2/10/2017; Henry Mance, "Academic touted as Trump's EU envoy embellished autobiography", Financial Times 2/9/2017; Daniel Boffey, "Credibility of Trump's EU ambassador pick called into question by leading MEP", The Guardian 2/9/2017).

If Mr. Malloch is actually appointed, the details (about publications, a knighthood, a lairdship, fellowships, professorships, an Emmy nomination, and so on) may become important, but meanwhile, one minor accusation — the tenth of ten listed in the 2/10/2017 FT article — led me to an amusing bit of lexicographic history.

The FT has identified a number of potentially misleading claims made in Mr Malloch’s autobiography, Davos, Aspen & Yale, and in an online CV.

[… items 1-9 omitted…]

  • That he was the “first” to use the phrase thought leadership, a phrase that dates back to the 19th century. Contacted by the FT, Mr Malloch repeated the claim.

The phrase "thought leadership" figures prominently on Mr. Malloch's web site, including in his capsule "Bio":

And a button at the top of his home page links to a "thought leadership" page:

The claim of terminological priority is featured in the foreword to Malloch's 2016 memoir, Davos, Aspen, and Yale: My Life Behind The Elite Curtain as a Global Sherpa:

Travelling to some 135 countries, Malloch is a pioneer of globalization who coined the term, “thought leadership”.

And it's certainly true, as the FT asserts, that use of this phrase in print, in what seems to be the same sense, goes back to the 19th century. There are probably earlier examples, but we can start with Charles Berry, "The Lessons of  a Life", New Outlook 1897, 55 years before Mr. Malloch's birth in 1952:

And yet, among them all, not hindmost, but foremost, was the man who was pastor of this church ; foremost in thought-leadership and influence, because speaking to men as preacher, not as mere academic student, not as mere recluse reading books and thinking thoughts; but as a preacher who had seen visions, and dreamed dreams, and gripped problems, and found out new ways to emancipation and progress.

There's also the 1914 Report of the West Virginia State Board of Regents:

To summarize, we should make sure of permanent and adequate support of our state University:

(1) To express the best judgment and spirit of our citizenship.
(2) To make available the material wealth of our state.
(3) To discover the wealth of talent and leadership.
(4) To build and equip a plant to take care of the needs of the students now in attendance, and the increasing numbers to come.
(5) To attract leaders of thought to official and teaching positions, and to hold those who desire special facilities for research and unusual opportunities for thought leadership.

And more than a few others.

But the find that redeemed for me the whole otherwise-tedious search is the Talk of the Town from The New Yorker, May 20 1961, which begins:

A WHILE ago, intelligence was received by the American Association of Advertising Agencies that some people in this country are not tremendously keen on advertising. The Association was much upset by the news. In the first shuck of dismay, the group planned a sweeping campaign of advertising to change the public's mind about advertising. This announcement filled us with interest. We began searching the highways for new billboards, the skies for skywriting, and the magazines for colorful illustrations . We watched and waited. But now we learn, to our regret, that the campaign has been postponed. The Association, upon reflection, has decided to withhold its big guns until it has executed a "definitive depth-attitude survey," which is intended to "explore further the premise that the principal problem of advertising is not with the general public but with criticism of it that stems through thought-leader groups." We gather that the general public, in its natural state, likes advertising unreservedly, and grows restless only when thought leaders stir it up.

Well, as it happens, we had lunch last week with the Thought Leader Group for West Forty-third Street and heard another side of the story . The chairman of the Group, who wears a little red fez and is known as the Thought Leader Leader, opened the session by observing that the proposed survey attacks the very foundations of Thought Leadership. "There was a time, gentlemen, when those whom we criticized could be counted on to respond in simple ways," he said. "They might, for example, declare that the faults we mentioned had never existed, and besides, a committee had been appointed to correct them. Alternatively, they might merely urge us, with maximum publicity, to go back where we came from, Russia being most commonly mentioned as our suppositional homeland. Thought Leadership was a lively game then, and followed elementary rules. But now the sport, I fear, has become infinitely more complex, not to say baroque."

"Right," interjected the Supreme Recorder of Snap Judgments. "Take these Madison Avenue Space Cadets. We tell them billboards make the highways ugly. 'I wonder what he means by that,' they say to one another. We tell them we have seen ads on television that would offend the sensibilities of the dimmest lout. They nudge one another and say, 'He's a subtle one, all right. The devil himself couldn't figure our what he's getting at. We must take a deep, deep, definitive survey of his attitudes and find out what he has against advertising.' I don't call that playing the game. Thought Leading isn't what it used to he. For two cents I'd give it up and join the Rotary."

Update — for more outside the FT paywall, see this tweet by Henry Mance.


  1. Crprod said,

    February 12, 2017 @ 12:50 pm

    To paraphrase Irving Berlin:
    "I say it's hypnotism and the hell with it!"

  2. AntC said,

    February 12, 2017 @ 4:34 pm

    … known as the Thought Leader Leader, .. is a nice little dig.

    Seems to echo Malloch's Bio a leading strategy thought leadership company, where it's just clunky.

    Thought Leaders seem to have no sense of humour/irony/self-consciousness. I suppose it's a requirement for the job.

  3. philip said,

    February 12, 2017 @ 4:54 pm

    Where do the thoughta lead the thought leaders to though? I much prefer thoughts that lead me somewhere to that bunch of unruly thoughts that I have to lead somewhere.

  4. philip said,

    February 12, 2017 @ 4:54 pm

    Where do the thoughts lead the thought leaders to though? I much prefer thoughts that lead me somewhere to that bunch of unruly thoughts that I have to lead somewhere.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 12, 2017 @ 5:15 pm

    The google n-gram viewer does show both "thought leader" and "thought leadership" suddenly taking off in popularity at a very steep slope starting in the early 1990's after a long earlier period of much lower-frequency use. I wonder to what extent corpus linguistics can help us determine whether the popularizers who helped that surge get going were simply taking a long-standing yet infrequently-used stock phrase, versus recoining it anew from its component points without having had direct personal exposure to the earlier uses.

  6. Rod Johnson said,

    February 12, 2017 @ 5:28 pm

    I'm surprised to see "space cadet" used in this sense (as opposed to the Robert Heinlein/Tom Corbett sense) as early as 1961. I think of it as a 70s thing, like "jive turkey."

  7. Rod Johnson said,

    February 12, 2017 @ 5:33 pm

    Though the internet tells me it was used by Jackie Gleason in the Honeymooners in 1955. But it's interesting that "space (out)" and "spacy" are attested only from the mid-60s on.

  8. Mitch Guthman said,

    February 12, 2017 @ 11:17 pm

    I suppose this is more of a protocol question than a language question but does this mean we're all supposed to refer to him as "Sir Ted"?

    [(myl) From one of the FT articles:

    Mr Malloch also writes that he was “knighted in the Sovereign Order of St John by the Queen, Elizabeth II herself” and “to my family and closest friends, I am therefore known as Sir Ted”. 

    But while he received the medal of St John in 2005, it was as a “serving brother” — a grade roughly equivalent to an MBE, a British honour several ranks lower than a knighthood. It does not carry a right to a title and members do not attend an investiture with the Queen.

    So unless you're one of his "family and closest friends", I guess not.]

  9. Brett said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 8:34 am

    @Rod Johnson: I would have expected "space cadet" to be from the 1950s, the golden age of solar system SF. Any later, and it probably would not have caught on, since with the early 1960s, there was suddenly a lot of new terminology for real space travellers.

  10. Frank said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 9:37 am

    Do 'opinion maker' and 'thought leader' differ in nuance? As a non-native speaker I am not sure but feel the latter is more snobbish – or is it just a matter of fashion?

  11. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 9:39 am

    Even if Mr Malloch were a knight of St John, this order does not carry the title 'Sir'.

    Moreover, with those orders which do carry the title 'Sir', it is still not supposed to be used by recipients who are not British citizens.

  12. Frank said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 9:41 am

    The google n-gram did not embed. It shows 'opinion maker' peaking in 1973 and 'thought leader' having small peaks in 1903 and 1964, dwarfed by the sharp rise now taking place.

  13. DWalker07 said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 12:03 pm

    Well, he COULD have coined the phrase. Maybe he is well over 100 years old; his birth year may have been 1852 instead of 1952.

  14. DWalker07 said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

    "Recoining it anew" for the win!

  15. RP said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

    The term "coin" is commonly misused and misunderstood by non-linguists, so a charitable interpretation might be that he was unaware that he was laying claim to having invented the phrase. Many people say "coin a phrase" when they mean "use a phrase". One even hears it used before or after clichés. This could be deliberate humour, but in most cases I don't think it is.

  16. RP said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 5:00 pm

    (…Although obviously if he used the word "first" then that puts paid to that possible defence.)

  17. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 8:42 pm

    A spuriouser claim there was never. As everyone knows, Thought Leadership is one of the modes of Leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the other two being Organizational Leadership and Political Leadership respectively. Thought Leadership refers to Education of Party Members and the Masses via Marxism-Leninism / Mao Zadong Thought / Deng Xiaoping Theory / the Important Thinking of the "Three Represents" / and Scientific Developmentism, unceasingly enhancing their Thought Consciousness, causing them to understand the Party's Guiding Principles and Political Line and to understand the Nation's Laws and Policies and to conscientiously actualize and implement them.


  18. DWalker07 said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

    If he's a Global Sherpa, does he carry stuff for everyone in the world?

  19. ardj said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 4:27 pm

    @RP As a non-linguistician (which I think is probably what you mean by 'non-linguist', though either word sounds barbaric), I probably fall into your group of common incomprehenders*. And yet I have searched the OED under both noun and verb, and failed to find a convincing use which suggests that the word ‘coin’ only applies to something freshly minted for the first time. The OED in fact is careful not to suggest such a thing: for at “coin, v.1” at 5d (1989 edition), it simply says, ”an expression commonly used ironically to introduce a cliché or a banal sentiment”. So I am comforted to think that Mr Malloch, while he may be a serial liar in other respects, at least here seems to have (even unwittingly) said nothing but the truth; and he and I are in good company.

    The implication, that all this is is further coining of false money (cf. 5b), or at least of worn-out terms or phrases, leaves us, however, with the lack, at least in English, of a genuine term for the first inventor's action, and I will not accept 'starter-upper'. There must be something better than 'neologist'.

    *I asked a friend for an alternative description for those who have misunderstood, but the best he could come up with was “electorate”. While that may be true in the UK, the result of the recent popular vote perhaps rules that out for the U.S.A. And I did not like “misunderstanders”. Suggestions welcome here, as well.

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