You’re fired — for not being a thought leader!

You're fired — for not being a thought leader!

It’s no joke. Recently in a San Francisco courtroom Ellen Pao, a former junior partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, went to court after suing the firm for discrimination. Pao claimed she had been denied promotion and compensation, and was fired because she is a woman and was also the victim of sexual harassment.

While the public revelled in the airing of some dirty laundry of Silicon Valley’s rich and famous, the trial strangely focused on thought leadership.


Because at Kleiner Perkins you have to be a thought leader to succeed. Witnesses cited these two words more than any other during the trial. Partners who testified on behalf of the firm claimed that thought leadership attracted the brightest entrepreneurs to the firm and that it was factored into promotions.

The defence claimed that Pao wasn’t good at her job because she wasn’t a thought leader. All the witnesses called by the defence testified that Pao did not receive promotion because she was unable to exhibit thought leadership and had failed to position herself as a thought leader within the firm, or more broadly, in the venture capital market.

The term cropped up so often that the judge and the jury asked witnesses for clarification of what they meant? One juror asked the judge in writing how long it took to become a thought leader and whether it could be learned or taught?

The answers to these questions were at best ambiguous, at worst confused and strangely focused on the ability of the employee to make persuasive presentations or “demonstrate initiative”.

So just what is thought leadership?

Was the trial able to establish thought leadership and whether in fact Pao was, or could have been, a thought leader?

It is surprising enough that a trial about sexual discrimination would have such a strong focus on thought leadership but it also highlights the bastardisation of the term. It is a term that has come to mean many different things for different people no more starkly illustrated by those partners who testified each with their own, different and vague definition.

Ultimately thought leadership is about presenting novel ideas that challenge conventional wisdom. Using that definition cuts out swathes of self-appointed thought leaders – many of whom off the back of one opinion piece, claim thought leadership status.

So how on earth did Kleiner Perkins expect a junior associate to be a thought leader?

After all they are few and far between at the best of times. Furthermore, they typically have deep expertise or knowledge of their specialist area, and even then many battle to make the step from expert to thought leader. In addition, what strategies did Kleiner Perkins put in place to assist Pao with developing a thought leadership platform and take it to market?

It is disingenuous for the firm to dismiss Pao because she wasn’t, in their eyes, a thought leader. In fact, it has to be pretty close to constructive dismissal let alone a massive smokescreen to protect the partner with whom she had an affair.

Clearly at Kleiner Perkins you have to be a thought leader to succeed notwithstanding the confusion between partners about what the term means or what type of support they give their employees to become one. Here are just a few examples of definitions from partners during the court case:

“Thought leadership is backed up by substance. You don’t just know how to get the car down the road, you know how the engine works.”


Thought leadership is “a deep understanding of an industry and that it helps with predicting trends. Usually you have to know something about something.”

Another partner during his testimony had trouble detailing what thought leadership meant. Instead he offered an example saying that it involved writing reports and making presentations to the firm’s partners.

The term became such a feature of the trial that the gallery, comprising mainly journalists, broke into giggles every time it was mentioned.

Pao lost, but can gain some satisfaction that not only will her former employer have to clean up its act on its employment policies but completely re-evaluate its thought leadership position and what it means to be a thought leader in the true sense of the word.


Subscribe To Firebrand Ideas Ignition Blog

Sign up to receive our new blog posts via email. You'll get all the latest articles on digital, marketing, social media, communications, personal branding — and lots of career advice

Search Website