Who Is a Nonprofit Thought Leader?
My husband may be trying to kill me. He’s a clever one, but I’ve figured him out.
T-shirt gifts keep showing up at my house. They have words on them. Things like:
- Will Trade Racists for Refugees
- Love Is Love
- I Believe in Science
After the T-shirt arrives, he wants me to try it on. Before I can change back to other clothes, he sends me to the Home Depot in Hanover County, Virginia, to get me killed.
We live in a suburb of Richmond, on the edge of the real country. Our local Home Depot is frequented by people like me — who have neighbors within sight, but still have a well and their own septic system — and also by people who wake to the sounds of roosters and cows. We are a deep red county.
All that is to say, sometimes labeling yourself can be counterproductive.
Here is the message on another T-shirt he bought me: Thought Leader.
When I opened the package, I felt:
- Relieved that wearing it would not endanger my life
- Deeply uncomfortable about wearing it
“Thought leader” is not something you can call yourself. Only other people can call you that; it’s a bit uncomfortable even then. Nothing much good comes back from most people when you wear a “Thought Leader” T-shirt. They think, “Prove it.” The first time someone (David Hessekiel, president of Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum) called me that during a conference introduction, I was both flattered and scared. Immediately I had performance anxiety about being a thought leader.
One of my favorite T-shirts from that conference was from a partner. It read “Decent Human.” When I wore it, I noticed people stiffening up, brows coming together, as if they were thinking, “What? You think I’m not a ‘decent human’?”
Similarly, “strategic thinker” and “innovation expert” put off a similar negative vibe. Part of the issue is these words are defined in various ways. Few have an actual degree with the word “strategy” attached to it, or work in a role that is fully defined as strategy work (I see you Marin Goings, chief of strategy at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation).
Most innovation, strategy and thought leadership work happen as a by-product of other work. While that situation may not be optimal, it’s the way of the world, and we deal with it.
So, what to call oneself, then? One example that may offer a solution can be found in a horrifically expensive brand study I commissioned a few years ago. But, like when I wear that jacket I paid too much for in Paris, I am happy to have occasion to put it to work here. A brand consultant suggested, “Instead of calling yourselves ‘human behavior experts,’ call yourselves ‘students of human behavior.’”
What a huge difference that made. Instead of listeners trying to trip us up, they wanted to learn with us, understand what we knew, and offer what they knew.
So, what does my T-shirt-buying psychologist husband, Otis Fulton, have to say about all this?
- “Psychologists talk about two types of pride. First, there is authentic pride. Authentic pride is characterized by recognizing that many of life’s achievements are fleeting. It’s a detached sense of one’s self-worth that comes from affirming and valuing yourself as you are.
- “The flip side of authentic pride is hubristic pride. While authentic pride cultivates humility, hubristic pride celebrates one’s superiority to others. Often, hubristic pride is rooted in a fragile self-worth that the person compensates for by feeling and acting superior. Maintaining a sense of superiority involves finding flaws in others to obscure their own limitations.
- “Generally speaking, pride is a good thing; feeling good about yourself is important to one’s emotional well-being.
- “But people unconsciously make social comparisons with those around them. ‘How do I rate, compared to — everyone?’ That’s why seeing a ‘Thought Leader’ T-shirt triggers a familiar line on ‘Seinfeld’ and elsewhere: ‘You think you’re better than me?’ So, while we’re usually oblivious to our own pride, we’re quick to react to others’ pride — all the more so when it’s staring us in the face on their clothing.
- “Finally, an aside — I buy Katrina those T-shirts because I know they drive her brothers crazy!”
The word “strategy” doesn’t have a defined job role in most U.S. organizations. Most treat “strategy” like “air.” Everybody needs it. It’s everywhere. It’s invisible. We don’t have a plan for it. Innovation? Same/same.
I recently chatted with two high-level executives having trouble with their job searches. Both are strategists (good ones) and had the word in their titles. One had tested a version of her resume without the “strategy” title and got better results. As a result, she got more call-backs and more interviews.
Is self-labeling themselves as “strategic” the entirety of the problem both were experiencing? Who knows, but any potential “You think you’re better than me?” reactions were certainly avoided by eliminating the word.
We think it’s important to talk about this type of thing. Hopefully, it will help leaders move forward in their current jobs and careers.
When I search “strategic thinker” on LinkedIn, more than 100 people pop up. None of them are named Elon Musk. Warren Buffet is a no-show, too. Just sayin’.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.