I have never liked the term ‘thought leader’. But Daniel Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry, persuades me that even if the language is unappealing the concept is useful in describing how the contemporary world of ideas works. In some cases, the category of people known as thought leaders can also make the marketplace of ideas more effective.
Drezner argues that the marketplace of ideas is much larger and more open now than it was in the post-war decades. Technology is one obvious reason; anyone with an internet connection can now publish and social media can be used to bypass the old publisher and broadcaster gatekeepers to audiences. Drezner covers this, but I think the most interesting parts of the book are about how even though it is more possible now than in the past to promote ideas on a small budget, this is also an era of for-profit ideas.
The language of thought leadership is used most by consulting firms, which publish reports as part of their branding – these are the trends and problems your industry faces, come to us for solutions. Drezner says McKinsey spends $400 million a year on these activities. Locally, PwC, Deloitte and others advertise their thought leadership in various fields.
While government spending on consultants seems volatile, there is little doubt that they play a much bigger role in advising governments than they did in the past. So their ‘thought leadership’ is likely to transmit directly to government this way. (Drezner has a chapter on how economics is more influential than other social sciences; that consulting firms are big employers of people with economics degrees is another route for economists to influence government).
Drezner contrasts ‘thought leaders’ with the older term ‘public intellectual’. He has a table of what he sees as the distinctions between them: