With so many educators online or becoming more active online, what practices do we have to think critically about who deserves our time and attention, and who can best inform our practice? How do we become critical consumers of thought leadership in our networks? Do we use criteria such as these to gauge authenticity?
- Large number of Twitter followers or email list subscribers – People are known to buy or populate these tools with followers/subscribers. Like a test score or ranking, does this provide a true sense that they are thought leaders?
- Publishing a book – Publishing a book is the new Ivy League degree. Lots of people want them and want to publish, but do they have the necessary practice and research on which to base a book?
- Engagement on social media – Where does the engagement occur – in an inner circle or clique? Does the thought leader engage with a wide variety of followers to regularly test new thinking and ideas?
- Giving keynote talks – A keynote can be inspiring and provide the spark for innovative work, but do they really lead to transformation? How does the keynote speaker provide follow-up to allow innovation to gain traction in a particular context? Or is it pretty much drive-by professional learning?
In the last several months, I have had nearly a dozen rich conversations with people inside and outside my network about the authenticity of educational thought leaders. As a result of these conversations, I’ve been thinking about how I critically consume the ideas of thought leaders and what processes I have in place to make my own determination – Are they WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get – both online and offline) or pretend leaders?
As educators, we work hard for our learners to critically consume information they gather when researching a problem or passion. There are various frameworks available to teach information literacy, Kathy Schrock’s 5 Ws being an example. If we expect this skill of our learners, shouldn’t we expect ourselves to critically consume information from thought leaders within our networks? And what questions should we be asking to determine whether these thought leaders are WYSIWYG or pretend leaders? Here are five questions I ask:
- Do they have a rich practice in a niche within the field of education? WYSIWYG leaders don’t just think, they take thinking to the next level and do! Pretend leaders love to share their opinion with the world through books, blogs, chats, podcasts or other communication media. But they never actually implement those theories in practice. They never actually do the work; they just like to tell us what they think we practitioners should be doing. The digital footprint of the WYSIWYG leader provides us with a clear picture of the successes and challenges they experience within their domain of expertise whether it be instruction, school leadership, teacher education, innovation or some other niche.
- Do they regularly codify lessons learned from practice? WYSIWYG leaders don’t stop at doing. They codify what they do so that it can be used critically by you and me. They share through books, blogs and create other media that reflect what they’ve learned through the meshing of practice, research and the ideas of others. They package their message in a way that is easily consumable by you and me. Pretend leaders either skip this step or they codify the lessons they’ve learned from research and thinking alone – devoid of practice. This is a subtle but important difference between the two kinds of thought leaders.
- Is there evidence of evolutionary/revolutionary transformation in systems? WYSIWYG leaders share measurable, actionable and verifiable change over time in their practice – in the classroom, school, district, etc. They regularly reflect on their practice, share the lessons learned along with the evidence of change. Pretend leaders rarely provide evidence of success because they spend most of their time thinking and prognosticating, rarely doing any real work of application.
- Does the online and offline “brand” match the promise? WYSIWYG leaders have both online and offline networks that are willing to advocate for their work and ideas. The message between the two networks must be congruent for a thought leader to be authentic and have integrity – the online and offline brand must match the promise. As WYSIWYG leaders are grounded in practice, they often do work with people in their networks that publicly endorse their work online. Pretend leaders largely live out an online persona. If they have any connection to practice, and we speak with the people they work with, we’ll likely hear a contrasting message. The online and offline brand are not in alignment.
- Is there a sincere desire to learn and talk with practitioners? WYSIWYG leaders engage over the long term with a variety of those in their network, including practitioners, to test their thinking and iterate new ideas in their chosen niche. They value the unique insider perspective of practitioners and leverage them to improve their work as thought leaders. Pretend leaders, driven by egocentrism, believe they have some kind of “golden nugget” and are not readily willing to learn from a diverse group within the network.
If you can answer “yes” to these five questions, you are likely following a WYSIWYG thought leader! Keep learning from them, finding ways to connect and grow your own thinking and practice! If you answered “no” to any of these, you may be engaging with a pretend leader. Spend some time to dig deeper into their work, thinking more critically about what they have to offer your own practice.
How do you evaluate thought leadership in your network? Who are your thought leaders?
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