Top Thought Leaders to Follow

If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish 😴
~ David Foster Wallace, in The Pale King

Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing 🌿
~ Tom Peters, in Autocrat of the Breakfast Table

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, and his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves 🎈
~ Lao Tzu, philosopher and poet of ancient China

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it 🏄
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer and statesman

That flat Book-stack, the one atop my Book-rack, is by Folks in the Thought Leaders’ pack 🏆


The top thought leaders that I’ve selected—and what an eminent pack it is—are significant contributors who improve the human enterprise, each in their unique way. The sole criteria for their selection is the immense personal relevance and the value of the contributions they’ve made to improve, enhance, and better the human enterprise. I’m reminded of what the late American president John F Kennedy famously said in noting that “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

With that, I submit to you these thought leaders:

  1. Cal Newport
  2. Elizabeth Grace Saunders
  3. Paul Graham
  4. Martin Fowler
  5. David Perkins
  6. Todd Henry
  7. Salman Khan
  8. Robert “Uncle Bob” Martin

What Gives?

My blog is—and will remain—decidedly oriented toward all things programming. But I had promised last weekend that this next weekend’s post will be positively non-technical, for a change, to leaven the theory-heavy nature of my recent posts. Rest assured that I’ll stay true to my core base of readers—I glanced at the stats and see that over 7,000 of you have graciously made the time to read my recent hard-core, technical musing on the finest books written, to date, on two amazing languages (Scala and Clojure) that run on the Java Virtual Machine (JVM).

Back now to this weekend’s post 🙂

Much as the quotes atop this post suggest, the common themes that tie together the strands of the thought leaders’ vignettes in this list are those of inspiration, leadership, guidance, dreaming boldly, and contributing meaningfully to the human enterprise. The remarkable and tongue-in-cheek, subtly phrased quote from David Foster Wallace—If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish—is of course straddling the osculating spheres of inspiration and boredom. More on that later…

What, Exactly, Is Leadership?

The quote from Tom Peters—Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing—is eminently clarifying, I thought, about what leadership is all about. And I would say much the same about the Lao Tzu quote—A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, and his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves—who has captured the selfless aspects of leadership exceedingly well, in my opinion.

Finally, who better than the genius Goethe—who had observed, Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it—to capture the visceral aspects which exemplify the essence of dreaming boldly.

With that, let’s dive right into our vignettes of some top thought leaders. But first, a quick note; as I was putting together this list of vignettes, I came across this evocative phrase, which completed the line of thinking that forms the unifying theme of this post, uniting the individual strands into a coherent whole. To wit

A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of ideas within a wall of words.
 ~ Samuel Butler, as quoted in Marvin Minsky’s The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind (Simon and Schuster, 2007)

Exactly, I found myself thinking—regarding each of the individuals who grace this list—that it’s precisely a “wall of words” that they have all used to create unique scaffoldings, so to say, to help others see farther, to dream bigger, and to lead better, each in their unique way; far from building walls to barricade others out, these thought leaders are eminently inclusive, each building, and then sharing, with the rest of us, their brilliant and down-to-earth conceptualizations.

Thirst For Inspiration

It is inevitable, perhaps, that the inborn thirst for inspiration, which dwells in each and every one of us, seeks to be quenched. As Paul Simon’s lyrics from the song Mrs. Robinson—anyone remember Dustin Hoffman in the movie The Graduate?—endearingly sparkle us with their witty effusion

Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio 

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you

With that, let’s take it away!

1. Cal Newport

At the top of my list is Cal Newport, who is just about the most clear-eyed thinker I know of. Cal teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C, where he is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science. What’s unique about Cal are his uniquely original insights, which he shares with the world through his Study Hacks Blog—Decoding Patterns of Success. As the name of his blog signals, his posts seek to capture the essence of achieving meaningful success through wide-ranging, engagingly written, and eminently thought-provoking discussions. The reason I now mention his academic credentials—he earned his Ph.D. from MIT, and graduated from Dartmouth College—is that some of the most elegantly stellar thinking I’ve ever come across is regularly on display in his blogs.

I’ve written about his blog in posts elsewhere on my blog, and continue to follow his writings. I’ll go as far as to say that each and every one of his books deserves to be read and re-read

Keep up the great work, Cal!

2.  Elizabeth Grace Saunders

This next thought leader has done for time management that nobody else has. If you think about just how important time-utilization truly is to us, in our busy lives, you’ll find great value in Elizabeth’s works. I’ve written about her work in posts elsewhere on my blog—see, for example, Time Management for Software Developers as well as Two Amazing Books—you can learn further about her work through those posts. Of course, there’s no replacement for reading Elizabeth’s work first-hand. And you can do exactly that by heading over to the following two books

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably found yourself cringing at the mere mention of the phrase “time-management”; I confess that I used to. But her books, with their brilliantly humane take on time investment, have changed all that.

Keep sharing with your readers, Elizabeth, the brilliant insights into our most intangible, yet priceless, asset that time is!

3.  Paul Graham

Much as I’ve done for the first two thought leaders, I’ve similarly written about Paul Graham’s work in posts elsewhere on my blog—you can look up, for example, On Paul Graham’s Essays, and of Y Combinator and On Lisp and Paul Graham. He is, in order of relevance, a peerless essayist, Lisp hacker extraordinaire, and a venture capitalist (Y Combinator).

Some of the finest prose I’ve ever come across has been in the pages written by Paul. In an essay that I wrote earlier—and where I was referring to the two fine books Paradigms of Artificial Intelligence Programming: Case Studies in Common Lisp by Peter Norvig (Morgan Kaufmann, 1992) and On Lisp: Advanced Techniques for Common Lisp by Paul Graham (Prentice Hall, 1994)—I had noted that, “While both are replete with good advice, it is Paul Graham’s On Lisp that also has the unique distinction of having been written spectacularly well; it has to be read to be believed!”

There is, of course, no substitute for reading his works first-hand. And you can do exactly that by looking up the following books by Paul

And as I alluded to above, his top-notch essays are positively not to be missed.

4.  Martin Fowler

The next entrant on my list, Martin Fowler, is—along with fellow luminary Robert “Uncle Bob” Martin—decidedly in the software industry camp. And that being the camp where I’m squarely positioned, I’m bending the rules a bit in including them, because their contributions to furthering the state-of-the-art in the programming world are simply too monumental to be denied 😉

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Fowler’s work has been instrumental in laying the very foundation of modern enterprise software. He is a profound thinker who has enlightened our industry through his prolific contributions. Fowler has captured and, in many ways, actually created a large corpus of the conceptual framework that makes up the bedrock of modern enterprise software. His excellent books include

And his equally excellent blogging continue to be a source of enlightenment. Those of us in the programming world look to many more years of enlightenment from this luminary.


5.  David Perkins

David Perkins is a founding member of Harvard Project Zero, a basic research project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that investigates human symbolic capacities and their development. Probably the best way to introduce the inspirational value of his work is to draw parallels with a book that belongs to a different genre: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! This book is the biography of the legendary Nobel laureate, as narrated by Richard Feynman himself, to Ralph Leighton. The LA Times was dead right when it commented on this book, saying, “Books like this are temptations to give up reading, and devote life to re-reading…”.

Precisely my sentiments, echoed—”Books like this are temptations to give up reading, and devote life to re-reading”—upon discovering Perkins’ work several years ago. His major books include the following, each one worthy of reading and, to be sure, re-reading

To give you a flavor of his works, here is Perkins’ inimitable take on the concept of “learning by wholes”, which is the central theme of his book entitled Making Education Whole

So this is what learning by wholes is all about. Learning by wholes aims squarely at learning from the lively now. Its goal is to build learning out of endeavors experienced as immediately meaningful and worthwhile—junior versions of the whole game that build toward more sophisticated versions. Its commitment is to leverage features of good naturalistic learning, whether we are talking about Bierstadt, baseball, or Barcelona. Its method is to systematize important features of such learning through the seven principles. Its credo says that good learning is learning from a richly experienced today with tomorrow in view.

And here—in the same book—Perkins shares this intriguing insight by way of background, saying

My academic degrees are from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I was a mathematics major. After I finished the undergraduate work, I continued into a doctoral program, developing an interest in mathematical approaches to artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is the study of how to get computers to undertake intelligent activities, such as playing chess or proving mathematical theorems or controlling a robot to do interesting and challenging things. My work on artificial intelligence stimulated my interest in thinking and learning in human beings. After finishing my degree, I slid over into the world of cognitive psychology and education, but the why of that is another story. Right now, you can picture me in the foothills of the dissertation range, thinking about what kind of research on artificial intelligence to attempt.

If that piques your interest, you’ll love his books—don’t miss the sparkling works of this brilliant educator.

6.  Todd Henry

Todd Henry’s writings on acquiring—grokking, as we would say in geek-speak—the creative process are utterly riveting and simply marvelous. Period. Here, in his own words, is what Todd does

I write books, speak internationally on productivity, creativity, leadership, and passion for work, and help people and teams generate brilliant ideas.

In short, I’m an arms dealer for the creative revolution.

There’s no wishy washiness in his writing, unlike the majority of books claiming to make you, um, more creative. Throw away those disheveled books, once and for all, and reach for the works of this stellar thought leader. To give you a flavor of Todd’s work, check out what he says in his book entitled The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice

The always-on manner with which many creatives approach their work is arrhythmic, but the creative process is naturally rhythmic. There are peaks and troughs of productivity, an ebb and flow to idea generation. Working harder and staring more intently at the problem to achieve better ideas is like trying to control the weather by staring at the clouds. Rather, you need to incorporate practices that instill a sense of structure, rhythm, and purpose into your life. You need to create space for your creative process to thrive rather than expect it to operate in the cracks of your frenetic schedule. This will not only help you generate better ideas now, but it will also ensure that you are acting on the things that matter most instead of drifting through your days.

I highly recommend these books by Todd

There are even a few equations—irresistible, of course, to us programming geeks—thrown in the pages of The Accidental Creative, for example this one that overflows with sagacity

Prolific + Brilliant + Healthy = producing great work consistently and in a sustainable way

You won’t regret buying any book written by Todd. Guaranteed. I look forward to many more works by him…

7.  Salman Khan

Salman “Sal” Khan is of course the consummate Magellan of the digital world—right up there with the inimitable David Perkins—who has charted the smoothest path so far to galvanizing empowered learners all over the world. I salute the work of this thought leader; the engines of ingenuity are definitely blazing away at Khan Academy, the non-profit educational organization he created in 2006.

What’s unique about Sal is the peerless originality with which he has imbued the world of education, utterly revolutionizing it in the process. And you can read all about it in this fantastic book in which Sal himself captures the essence of his radical vision for the future of education, as well as his own remarkable story

His pioneering video tutorials have brought the spark of learning to light up the lives of millions. In the words of Chris Anderson, the TED Curator

The world dreams of education reform, and Sal Khan is delivering. His pioneering video lessons have brought the thrill of learning to millions. In this compelling book, he tells the remarkable story of Khan Academy, and explains the potential in students learning at their own pace and achieving true subject mastery.

There are no less than 6,500 video lessons available at the Khan Academy website, teaching a wide spectrum of academic subjects. This thought leaders has definitely focused on the most vital of goals, that of educating the world.

Legendary programmer-author, Robert “Uncle Bob” Martin has made, and continues to make, unique contributions to the world of software engineering. He is right up there with Martin Fowler in terms of the significant work that he has done in making the programming world a more pleasant one to inhabit.

Let me list out his superb books—each one in the not-to-be-missed category—with which Uncle Bob has enlightened the programming world

Allow me to elaborate on my preceding remark about his significant contributions to making the programming world a more pleasant one to inhabit. And this is perhaps best understood by reading his Manifesto for Software Craftsmanship, which starts out with these bold words

As aspiring Software Craftsmen we are raising the bar of professional software development by practicing it and helping others learn the craft. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Not only working software, but also well-crafted software.
  • Not only responding to change, but also steadily adding value.
  • Not only individuals and interactions, but also a community of professionals

You can read the full manifesto at Manifesto for Software Craftsmanship 🙂

I’m looking forward to continued enlightenment—hint, Uncle Bob, please continue to write—by this prolific luminary of the programming firmament!

And that brings us to the end of these vignettes. Again, the sole criteria for the selection of these top thought leaders is the immense personal relevance, and the value of the contributions they’ve made to improve, enhance, and better the human enterprise. It is in the works of these leaders that I’ve found inspiration and guidance.

Do feel free to post your comments, once you’ve finished reading this, so we can build a conversation around what you, uniquely, look for in a thought leader. Meanwhile, I leave you with the blazing warmth of these glowing words of poetry…

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
~ William Butler Yeats



  1. I'm delighted that you enjoyed the introductions to some top thought leaders! By the same token, if you wish to introduce anyone who has been influential in your sphere, do please feel free to do so by replying 🙂

  2. – As the author of this blog, I have to sheepishly confess that I'm far behind on responding to the scores of kind, thoughtful, and encouraging comments from readers like you, Zahidul Hasan, who continue to make time to stop by and reading the essays that I post here.

    – Please know that encouraging comments such as yours make my day, every day, so thank you 🙂

  3. – I appreciated your reading (and hopefully enjoying) this essay, Aliya, and making the time to share your thoughts with other readers of this blog.
    – Thanks, I'll take a look at the link you've shared in connection with the Best Programming Tools.

    – Please know that encouraging comments such as yours make my day, every day, so thank you 🙂

  4. Please let me know if you're looking for a writer for your blog.
    You have some really good posts and I feel I would be a good asset.
    If you ever want to take some of the load off, I'd really like to write some material for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine.
    Please blast me an e-mail if interested. Cheers!

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