By Charles Wohlforth
Charles Wohlforth, the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, works with business and political leaders to develop ideas and co-write
Clear ideas lead to clear actions. But how do you know your idea is clear before you try it?
Leaders test their ideas against experience, team feedback, and intuition. But those tools are mostly retrospective. True leadership points forward, into the unknown, where the greatest rewards lie. In that domain, the past can be misleading.
There is a better way to audition an idea. Put it in print.
The cold white page (or screen) can be a first, risk-free proving ground for innovative thinking. Writing forces ideas to live outside the warm comfort of a leader’s mind.
Every student who has written a term paper knows how a brainstorm can wither into a cliché when expressed in a first draft. Often, a thought that seems cogent turns out to have gaps when subjected to the uncompromising logic of grammar. Filling those gaps is the real work of making an idea actionable.
Occasionally, writing helps an emerging thought break the horizon like a rising run, shedding light in places you never expected.
I’ve authored many books over the years, developing ideas on topics as diverse as behavioral economics, Inuit whaling and innovation in the space industry. I’ve never seen exactly where a project will take me until I begin to write.
But writing isn’t only for a leader’s benefit. In a large organization, expressing substantive, inspiring words can itself be an act of leadership. I’m not referring to writing cheerleading internal memos or even strategic reports. This is about writing for the outside world, too. It is writing words that people want to read—the authentic, strongly felt best of yourself.
That kind of writing leads places you may not expect. Often, the best insights come after publication, when thoughtful work produces thoughtful responses in the broader world. Giving away trade secrets is bad business, but expressing thoughts that can move your field produces reputational capital that money can’t buy.
Smart people like learning about good ideas. Who wouldn’t prefer to work for a leader who writes well and produces thought leadership? Chief executives well known as thinkers outside their organizations can attract top talent.
Imagine Googling a company or CEO to find, among the top hits, field-defining thinking published in important business or academic journals. That’s the kind of profile any company or leader would covet.
Of course, not every high-level leader has innovative ideas. You can’t force it. And many of those who do have something to say don’t know how to write powerfully, or simply lack the time.
Writing is a skill like playing a musical instrument. If you are busy running a company you probably haven’t had the practice to learn how to produce compelling prose. You need help.
But choosing who to work with isn’t obvious. A leader may lack an intellectual peer who can share writing duties. Communication and marketing departments write sales material, but rarely have the horsepower to help define important thinking. Consultants sell ideas, but their analytical skills are not oriented to helping a CEO express his or her own thoughts.
One option is to work with a practitioner of long-form journalism or narrative non-fiction, a writer with the experience of tackling challenging topics. Authors of serious books you admire know how to deliver complex ideas in clear sentences. Successful publication itself is proof of the ability to develop, test and sell serious thinking.
Working with a smart, flexible thinker from outside your field may be the most rewarding part of co-writing an article, blog or book. A co-author can be like a personal trainer for the mind. But this is mental heavy lifting, and it isn’t quick or easy. Along with finding the right words, your partner provides resistance and feedback that strengthens your thinking. Through the process of discussion, critique and iterative drafts, the final work becomes a true collaboration. Working with someone you respect is critical. We live in an era of internet memes, Twitter posts, and other empty-calorie, disposable writing. Our days are awash is this stream of surface froth, while deeper, more substantial thought is left submerged.
Leaders who have something to say owe it so themselves and their organizations to dive deeper and bring back something of lasting value for themselves, their organizations, and society.