How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Who Are Your Thought Leadership Partners?

The venture capitalist Laura Deming is advertising for one of the most beguiling ideas I’ve heard in some time: a thought partner.

For Deming, this partner would be someone like her: fascinated by science; working in a profession “related and orthogonal to it”; keeping up with the literature in one or more fields; and desiring someone with whom regularly to explore science-related ideas.

Deming (the general partner and founder of the Longevity Fund, a VC firm that invests in and incubates companies developing drugs for aging and age-related diseases) lays out a list of values and qualities she wants to share with her thought partner:

  • Chain ideas together coherently
  • Researcher or a professional with academic interests (I’m the latter)
  • Consume papers avidly, and have taste on which you like
  • Intellectually humble enough not to make bold claims without caveats, but courageous enough to want to find general principles
  • You like to get your hands dirty when it comes to papers — your immediate instinct is to quickly try to run the program, call a friend in a lab to vet some info, or find an alternate way to visualize the equation. Not doing this feels a bit uncomfortable and dishonest, if you’re really interested in the question at hand
  • Interested in the history of science
  • You love explaining things to others – your eyes light up and you feel a rush of joy when able to explain something you understand deeply to an interested observer.

“My goal would be to chat once a week about intellectual topics of interest, and possibly work on some side projects together,” she writes. “I think starting with a low bar to build an intellectual bridge is generally a good idea.”

What a beautifully refreshing oasis in a time of accelerating intellectual rigidity.

If you’re a researcher, I assume (or hope) you already have colleagues with whom you share a similar (if not more intense) dynamic. You need one, especially given that researchers tend to evaluate novel ideas negatively when they see other researchers express negative views of the ideas — a dynamic that reinforces conservatism in research.

But if you’re interested in public engagement as a researcher, I think you should have a similar partner to talk about how to bridge your work, insights and ideas to non-specialists.It could be a fellow researcher with similar interests or a communications strategist.

A thought leadership partnership needs to be more than just communications strategy and tactics as we usually think about them — about executing a promotion. It needs to be about creating ideas, solutions and paradigms that better fit and lead the world. For that, you shouldn’t be on your own.

I’m going to compose a similar list of values for researcher thought leadership partners. What values and qualities would be on your list?