Calling someone a “thought leader” is a way of calling them “interesting,” but it has a little more heft. Thought leaders are out there, leading thoughts around! (When someone claims that they themselves are a thought leader, I assume they’re really not, and also that they are a little bit of a dick.)
The phrase has always bugged me. It’s exactly backward.
One of the interesting people I pay attention to is Tim Urban. He blogs over at WaitButWhy. His superpower is to ask a surprising question, and then to start looking for the answer. He keeps going, around lots of surprising corners, until he understands the entire answer really deeply.
Then he writes about it. See, for example, his story about Elon Musk’s BFR. If you’re like me, when you get there, you’ll follow the links back to Tim’s earlier articles on Elon’s companies. It’s a heck of a story, and you kind of need to see it all to understand the pieces.
That skill really impresses me, and I try to ape it.
The reason Tim is so good at what he does is that he just won’t stop following his thoughts, no matter where they take him. He asks a question, thinks about it, does some research, turns up more questions. Lather, rinse, repeat; he makes himself this huge tree of detail, and he follows every path, out to the tip of each twig.
“Thought leader” sounds to me like you tie a rope around the neck of a mongrel thought and drag it with you, whether it wants to go or not.
It’s a lot more work, but a lot more interesting, to follow the thoughts, wherever they lead you.