Four rules about calling yourself a thought leader

Think carefully before using grandiose terms like thought leader. Let others bestow such titles on you, whether while you’re alive or when you’re dead.

Four rules about calling yourself a thought leader by Nancy Knowlton

I receive and read a lot of resumes. I have seen almost every possible description of background and skills. Some people talk about themselves in the third person, referencing their own name repeatedly. Some say “he” or “she,” while others avoid any reference to themselves, using phrases instead that imply “I’ but leave it unwritten. I think the choice is hard for people, far from obvious as to what is the right mode. I do have an aversion to actual references to one’s own name throughout the resume and cover letter.


Some resumes are full of jargon and acronyms, to the point where it is impossible for anyone but an industry or company insider to understand what it means. Others have every possible buzz word or expression, likely recognizing that many companies now use software to search for these words as part of the selection process. People are increasingly self-described as leaders and change-agents among other laudatory words. Each time my reaction is the same, and it is not positive. I find this a disturbing trend where people glom onto expressions and phrases and think that it is a good thing to use them for themselves.

Word choices

One of the trendiest expressions that I see that leaves me shaking my head is the recent rise in the number of people who call themselves “thought leaders.” I think that they do this with the best of intentions and little thought (which for a self-proclaimed thought leader is likely not a good thing). Articles everywhere describe the need for companies to take a thought leadership role to get their message to rise above the everyday din. It is a natural extension for individuals to think that they must be thought leaders.

To be or not to be

Let’s be clear. Thought leaders are rare. Aristotle was a thought leader. Winston Churchill was a thought leader. Mao was a thought leader. Stephen Covey is a thought leader. But I and every other blogger, writer and influential wannabe are not thought leaders unless someone declares us to be so. Putting it onto a resume or website does not make it so.

I have four simple rules that guide my thinking about thought leadership:

1. If you have to call yourself a thought leader, then you are not. Only others can refer to you as a thought leader, and that may only come after many years of contributing perspective and knowledge.

2. If your PR people write that you are a thought leader in your bio, tell them that they cannot do this. Review your profile before it goes out, because well-intentioned people can make you look foolish.

3. Calling yourself a thought leader is akin to saying that you are beautiful. If that is bad manners and something that you simply would not do, then you cannot call yourself a thought leader.

4. Calling yourself a thought leader is like throwing a tantrum. You want attention and you’re going to get it any way that you can.

Simply put, don’t call yourself a thought leader. Let others bestow that title on you, as and when you deserve it. If it happens while you’re alive, work to live up to the designation. If that happens after you’re dead, so be it.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.