Writing a book is a popular way to gain attention as an expert in your field. Being seen as an expert is a goal for many thought leaders, and a primary reason many of these forward-thinking folks write books. But, writing a book is also an invaluable way to learn more about your topic and the many ways there are to explain that subject to others.
Writing a book compels you examine the way you explain things. It forces you to defend your ideas. It requires you spot and address deficiencies in your way of thinking. It equips you with fresh vantage points and constructive criticism from peer reviewers.
What writing a book (or being a thought leader) can’t do is magically make you a trainer.
Despite what well-intentioned champions of the thought-leader-as-trainer school of thought preach, making thought leaders responsible for training others is usually a horrible idea. It assumes that being a thought leader is enough to qualify you as a teacher.
Why? Because teaching is a unique skill. It requires training, knowledge, experience and know-how. It’s not something everyone is good at — even if we’re good at being a thought leader. And, like most disciplines, training should be left to folks who understand what training is (and what it’s not).
What is a thought leader?
Thought leadership researchers Russ Alan Prince and Bruce Rogers define a thought leader as “an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.”
The folks at the Thought Leadership Lab describe thought leaders as “informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success. They create a dedicated group of friends, fans and followers to help them replicate and scale those ideas into sustainable change not just in one company but in an industry, niche or across an entire ecosystem.”
Notice they never called them teachers or trainers. Sure, thought leaders may be willing to “show [you] how” to replicate their success, but you may not learn anything meaningful if they suck at training/teaching.
What is a teacher?
Dennis Hong, molecular biologist, turned educator, says in his essay, The Hardest Job Everyone Thinks They Can Do, that “Teaching is understanding how the human brain processes information and preparing lessons with this understanding in mind. Teaching is not easy. Teaching is not intuitive. Teaching is not something that anyone can figure out on their own. Education researchers spend lifetimes developing effective new teaching methods. Teaching takes hard work and constant training. I understand now.”
Academics, eLearning and instructional design professionals know that throwing together a few PowerPoint slides and selling your efforts as a workshop, doesn’t make it a valid educational experience. Nor does it substitute for formal training classes provided by a skilled training professional.
Usually, today’s so-called training is nothing more than a bunch of content of questionable quality strung together by a fragile framework of bulleted lists, poor resolution images clipped from the internet, and restroom breaks. The critical ingredients of a proper training class are usually missing — training. You can’t claim that you trained someone if you didn’t test them to see if they learned anything. The results of training should be measurable (like any other expense) and achieve specific goals (like increasing the capability, capacity, productivity, and performance of students). Anything else is a glorified, lengthy presentation. Or a workshop. Or a seminar. But, it’s not training.
The illusion of understanding
Abuse of the word training (and teaching and learning) notwithstanding, Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster banned PowerPoint for training during the Iraq war saying it was dangerous because it creates “the illusion of understanding.”
General McMaster also said that “PowerPoint makes us stupid” and that “Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.”
The thought-leader-as-educator refrain is just as dangerous as relying on PowerPoint to guide your training efforts. Neither one is an excellent idea.
That is not to say that all thought leaders are ill-equipped to teach. Rather, they may just be accustomed to delivering a message in a controlled environment using PowerPoint, not challenged by the difficulties teaching introduces.
Seeking help from the experts
Instead of pretending to be something they are not, thought leaders can — and in many cases, should — seek help from those in the educational arena. Educators are trained (see what I did there) to understand learning styles, the neuroscience of memory, and that classes without assessments (tests) aren’t defensible. It shouldn’t be called training if you have no way to know whether anyone learned anything.
Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), a medical technology firm, realized the need for their thought leaders to become teachers and committed to transforming the company into a teaching organization. The company recognized the value of the knowledge their leaders could provide to others, but they also acknowledged that their thought leaders did not come equipped out-of-the-box with the necessary skills to teach. BD was smart. They invested considerable time and effort (read: money) increasing the educational capabilities of their leaders, equipping them with the knowledge and know-how needed to become teachers. And, they are more successful at teaching others as a result.
The truth is in there — somewhere
It’s easy to make sweeping, tweetable, generalizations. It’s harder to examine — and take a critical look — at the advice we’re offering and determine whether we’re just spouting off about something we know very little about or if we’re really providing word of wisdom.
We can continue to proclaim that a particular skill in one arena transfers automatically to another. But, that won’t make it true. Just because someone is a perceived as a thought leader in their chosen field does not make them a great educator. It might not even make them a mediocre one.
Just ask a teacher.
Better yet, ask a student.