Raging against the thought leader machine

Justin Fox of Harvard Business Review just put up a critical post about Ferguson, Zakaria, et al, and the recent trend of the public asking them to re-apply for their jobs as super-serious intellectuals worth top dollar.

Ferguson is a great financial historian — his history of the Rothschild family is brilliant. In recent years he’s become more of a generalist, and has focused more on current events. That’s not a bad thing — I’m all for experts broadening their reach and sharing their knowledge. But Ferguson has been so good at it, and can express himself so charmingly, and handsomely, and swashbucklingly, that some people are willing to pay him to yammer on about pretty much anything. Tina Brown of Newsweek/The Daily Beast is one of those people, but far more important, as Stephen Marche pointed out on Esquire.com, are the conference organizers who are pay Ferguson $50,000 to $75,000 to entertain and edify a hotel ballroom full of business types about “Chimerica” or “the six killer apps of Western civilization.”

That’s the link with Lehrer and Zakaria, who are (or probably were, in Lehrer’s case) big on the speaking circuit as well. Zakaria is a hugely accomplished thinker and writer (go back and read his breathtakingly good October 2001 Newsweek cover story “Why Do They Hate Us?” for a sample) who seems to have stretched himself too thin. Lehrer is a smart young upstart — his third book, Imagine: The Art and Science of Creativity, had been tearing up the bestseller lists before scandal hit — who seems to have made good storytelling a higher priority than the truth. That progression may tell a lot. The path to lucrative thought-leaderdom blazed over the past couple of decades was to establish yourself with dense, serious work (or a big, important job) and then move on to catch-phrase manufacturing (I spent a few weeks following Tom Friedman around in 2005, and learned that he had made this transition very deliberately). Nowadays ambitious young people looking to break into the circuit often just aim straight for the catch-phrases. Speakers bureaus need pithy sales pitches, not complex erudition — and while speaking fees might be spare change for Mitt Romney, for journalists and academics they often represent their only real shot at a top-tax-bracket income.

What I find so fascinating is that a lot of the push is coming from intellectuals, like Justin and I, who are supposed to aspire to make it to the top of this very system. Surely we are 1) very jealous of their success and 2) biting the very hand we hope to feed us. I’ll go one step further – if it was 2003 and this happened, there’s no way I would have stepped this far out of line with The Way Things Work just because of a few high profile journalism scandals. I was well in the throes of believing in the meritocracy of ideas, and hoped to join the ranks.

You want an embarrassing admission of guilt? When I was 28 and just getting started in this business under the power of my own writing, I actually Photoshopped some gray into my temples on my headshot to look more venerable. How goddamn pathetic is that? Let it not be said that I was ever above all of this.

Meanwhile, in leadership land, if you look back at 2003 there was still a belief, howevering dimming, that The American Way of Doing Things was still functional, and thus its elite were to be given the benefit of the doubt. 2012 is different. We have seen too much. We know well the fruits of this style of hierarchical, authority driven leadership – failed wars, broken markets, corrupted policy mechanisms. And every time there is a failure, this cadre of leaders seems unable and unwilling to engage in even a few moments of contrition or introspection.

Hoping for a better position in a mess like this seems inferior to asking some very hard questions about why it works this way – even if the current leadership refuses to join us.