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Thinking Out Loud

A high-profile Silicon Valley sex discrimination trial hinged in part on a thorny question: What is thought leadership?

Throughout February and March, a real-life courtroom drama played out in San Francisco: Ellen Pao, a former junior partner at the storied Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, had sued the firm for discrimination in May 2012, and now the case had come to trial. Pao argued that she had been denied promotion and compensation — and was ultimately fired — in essence because she was a woman, and had been the victim of a colleague’s sexual harassment.

The proceedings captured the public’s attention because they aired the dirty laundry of some of the tech world’s richest and most famous at a time when the continued underrepresentation of women in the sector has become a pressing topic. Although the jury ruled against Pao, many observers believe the high-profile nature of her case will in the long run help to disrupt Silicon Valley’s distinctive culture, which remains one of the most male-centric — at times even frat-boyish — in the U.S.

 One of the many fascinating aspects of the trial, as captured nicely in this Fortune article, was the frequency with which the phrase “thought leadership” cropped up. Witnesses testifying on behalf of Kleiner Perkins frequently cited Pao’s alleged inability to exhibit thought leadership as a primary reason she failed to be promoted from junior partner. Pao’s performance reviews, presented in evidence, also noted her failure to position herself as a thought leader, either within the firm or the larger VC sector. The issue arose so often that both judge and jury asked witnesses for clarification: what exactly did they mean by the phrase? “How long does it take to become a thought leader?” one juror asked the judge in writing. “Can it be learned? Can it be taught? Is it possible not to become one after many years?” Answers were ambiguous and mostly centered on the belief in one’s ability to make persuasive presentations and “own the room” when speaking, or, rather lamely, merely demonstrate initiative.

All of which raises a question that is both basic and difficult to answer: Just what is thought leadership?

“How long does it take to become a thought leader?” one juror asked the judge in writing.

There’s no National Association of Thought Leaders to lay down standards. Originally popularized by Joel Kurtzman, the founding editor of this magazine, as a title for profiles of highly influential thinkers, thought leader has gone on to become one of those biz-speak buzzwords that seems to mean whatever the speaker believes it should mean.

I asked Jim Kouzes, coauthor of The Leadership Challenge and one of my gurus on all things leadership, how he understood the term. Kouzes sets the bar rather high, noting that a thought leader is someone who advances our common understanding of what’s possible in a field or sector, challenges conventional wisdom with fresh and original ideas, and has a lasting impact on people and organizations — all pretty much what Kurtzman had in mind.

Expecting a junior associate in a firm — or even a garden-variety senior partner or executive — to exhibit this level of wisdom, foresight, and self-assurance in order to qualify for promotion is absurd. Not only are such qualities extremely rare, but the culture in most organizations does not support them. Whether you look at investment banks, industrial companies, law firms, or government agencies, it’s hard to come up with examples of how seriously challenging convention — the company’s current strategy, mode of leadership, and way of doing business — clears a path to advancement. As most of us who’ve worked in even well-run and successful companies can attest, a hearty, “Great idea, boss!” is the grease that keeps most careers moving. Rebels may start and build companies, but they rarely get promoted to run them. 

Indeed, it’s just not convincing to argue that Ellen Pao didn’t make it to the top because she failed to make the grade as a thought leader, at least in the way Kouzes and Kurtzman define it. And the way the phrase was used during the trial suggests that thought leadership can be used as a rationale to explain why a seemingly qualified and promising woman is denied an anticipated promotion.

That said, my experience working with senior women executives for the last 25 years has convinced me that women seeking leadership positions can benefit enormously by establishing themselves as strong and persuasive advocates for a big idea, even if they get pushback for doing so. Research from a team led by Herminia Ibarra, a chaired professor of leadership and learning at INSEAD, the global business school based in France, demonstrates that senior executives in top firms who hold women’s talents in high esteem nevertheless often characterize women in their organizations as “lacking in vision,” by which they mean long-term, big-picture future focus.

This misapprehension seems to stem from several causes: the differences in male and female presentation styles, the documented difficulties men often have listening to women, and the fatigue women feel after reiterating points or positions they feel they already have shared or watching their best ideas get credited to someone else. Pao testified that she made an early recommendation that her firm invest in Twitter, only to be turned down and watch a male colleague receive credit for making the recommendation at a later date.

Nevertheless, and despite the Pao case, it’s important that women continue to try to position themselves and build alliances based on their vision. Only by honing their capacity to advocate for a position they believe in, based on what they authentically notice and value, can they chip away at the perception that they’re lacking while also creating an environment more receptive to their best talents. That’s how culture change is created — by persistence and resilience. Whether it qualifies as thought leadership is beside the point.

Sally Helgesen

Sally Helgesen is the author of seven books on leadership, most recently How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, coauthored with Marshall Goldsmith. She delivers workshops and keynote addresses around the world and has been a contributor to s+b since 2005. 

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