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The mightiest skill the world’s thought leaders master is not diamond sharp insight. It is rather the ability to be just controversial enough. Fashionably controversial if you will.

Opinion shapers have a keen understanding of their clientele: they are first and foremost great psychologists. They know common folk want to be reminded of their ignorance but not to the point of self-consciousness. To make it on the world’s most impressive panels at high altitude Swiss villages or network cable news desks, one has to bring along counter-intuitive insights but stop short of pursuing their politically inconvenient implications.

Thought leaders also sell a brand and an image which come with their own theatrics. ┬áThere is no better example than CNN’s Fareed Zakaria’s. His wisdom emanating, trademark frown looks more than convincing as he launches into a line of inquiry promising to expose the world’s ultimate conspiracies. But, by the end of the segment, I guarantee you will be disappointed. He invariably finishes with an inconclusive statement of the “perhaps we will never know” type. It’s “good journalism” practice to stop short of one’s honest jab at the truth.

I will say it: there is an element of hypocrisy at play.┬áThe great Romanian satiric playwright I.L. Caragiale beautifully captured this human nature flaw through the words of a fictional political leader character in a provincial 19th Century European town who makes the mistake of a brutally honest speech opening: “in this esteemed town of idiots where I am first”.

My point? Success comes with social acceptance which comes with compromise and politics. You are likely to learn more from those outlier thinkers that don’t make the panels, don’t write the HBR articles and aren’t invited to keynote at global forums. Remember the sexiest man alive Dos Equis commercial punchline? The “stay thirsty my friends”? I have my own for thought leadership advice: stay on the look-out for the non-obvious my friends! Don’t be taken by trademark frowns, polished bold foreheads, thick black glasses, and other such wisdom proxy tricks.

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