Thought(ful) Leader Series: Thin Difference Founder Jon Mertz

Jon Mertz

The Thoughtful Leader Series

“The principles [of true character] are fitted together into what we call…the integrated self, wherein personal decisions feel good and true. Character in turn is the enduring source of virtue. It stands by itself and excites admiration in others.” – E.O. Wilson

86% of respondents to a recent World Economic Forum’s Global Survey felt that we face a serious leadership crisis.

I have asked leaders in different fields whom I respect their views on leadership today and what conversations they think we need to be having. If you find something valuable here, please share this post and leave your comment or question.

Today’s thoughtful leader is Jon Mertz, author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. For three years in a row, Trust Across America has named Jon one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders for his contributions. Jon was raised on a farm where he grew steeped in certain virtues that he has returned to in his early political work as well as as an executive, founder of the Thin Difference community, and Millennial champion. A baby boomer, Jon has been leading the conversation about inter-generational leadership. It is Jon’s contention that there is a thin inference in the perceived generation gap if both sides are willing to listen to and learn from one another.

In this Thought(ful) Leader interview, Jon will share with us his definition of a thought leader, the question he hopes more people will consider this year, and what wisdom he hopes he will be remembered for. – Jeffrey

Jeffrey: When you “look around” the world and within your field, where do you see a need for a bold or new kind of leadership?

Jon: We need more activated leaders. We need leaders that communicate goals with extreme clarity, who are transparent with information and accountability, who create a culture of active problem-solving and empowering talent, and who wrap the organization in purpose.

Activating teams and individuals creates a sense of mission in the work, especially when everyone understands their role in achieving the greater purpose of the organization. I know this sounds lofty, but this is the type of bold leadership we need, and it is doable. We know employee engagement has not worked (e.g., less than 30% are engaged). We know self-centered missions trump enduring trust (e.g., VW).

Perfection is not the goal because we are human after all. However, the goal is to be bold around the right things like purpose, trust, problem-solving, and accountability.

Purpose-activated leaders will be stronger, and we need to shift our mindset to activating the soul and talent of the people around us. Included in this mix are our team members, customers, investors, partners, and suppliers. A key part of this activating mindset shift is to view our workplace as a community where we all participate to strengthen purpose, profit, and more fulfilling results.

What traits define for you a “thoughtful leader”? What is a “thought leader”?

What I try to do is consider the different viewpoints around a topic or action. I listen and ask questions. From here, I begin to formulate my thoughts and communicate them in a way to invite further discussion and understanding. For me, it is empathy in action or empathy by example. These characteristics move us to being a more thoughtful leader, I believe.

Where thoughtful leader and thought leader intersect is the challenge to think below the surface elements of an idea or policy. When you cause someone to think deeper or differently than before, then I believe you have embraced being thoughtful and thought-provoking. Accomplishing this is hard to do, but it rewarding when you hit this sweet spot. My goal is to aim for this intersection in what I write and talk about.

When did you realize you were a leader in your field, a leader of ideas, or a leader of a conversation?

I am not sure I have realized this yet! I am glad to be a part of the generational leadership conversations. When I shifted to focus on the thin difference between generations when we exchange ideas and insights around purpose, people rallied around this idea. Four years ago, I noticed too much Millennial stereotyping happening. No one gains by promoting this behavior. The better actions are to share experiences, support and challenge each other, and celebrate diversity of ideas and approaches. By doing these things, each generation becomes stronger in their leadership capabilities.

In many ways, this is a simple idea with a powerful outcome, and I am glad to be in the middle of it.

What’s the conversation you hope more people will have or the question you hope more people will consider this year?

The question I hope more people consider this year is: How can I entangle purpose in my life work? Life-Work balance is out, and Life-Work tempo is in. Purpose-driven is outdated, and Purpose-activated is in. The thought behind these words are simple yet difficult to do. Life is messy. There is no way around it. Figuring out the right tempo between life and work takes self-awareness, time away, and diligent effort. Without purpose within this mix, we are dancing to nowhere. We need to determine how to entangle our purpose within our life and work, providing direction to both.

When we stare at death or a crippling life event, we gain clarity in our purpose. The question is really around how we can gain and sustain this clarity when times are filled with less drama?

If you could change or influence more people’s perceptions or notions of something, what would it be?

Think beyond the headline. We don’t need to go in-depth on every issue, but we also cannot afford to make snap judgments on critical issues or challenges. The other caveat is not to get into analysis-paralysis. There is a tempo required here, too.

The shift we need is to engage in thoughtful, collaborative problem-solving. In business and life, the number of unsolved problems seem to be escalating. We need to take the time to go beneath the surface, understand the motivations of the rhetoric and inaction, and then use empathy to focus on solutions that have long-term viability. We are a diverse workplace and community. Within our diversity, there is great strength. We need to tap into our natural abilities and talents rather than just staying at superficial levels and resolving nothing.

As an author, what has been one of the most rewarding responses to one of your book that lets you know you’re making the kind of difference you want to? 

When I receive an unexpected tweet or read an Amazon review, a warm feeling happens inside. I feel honored and humbled by the feedback, and it motivates me to keep writing and activating the conversations about our future and strengthening our leadership craft.

A specific area that has been most rewarding is the chapter on pace and stride. Patience is misunderstood in our work and life. Several readers have told me that they always go back to pace and stride as almost a mantra in discerning what to do next. Is this a moment to pick up my stride, or is it a moment to continue patiently to do the work? Getting others to breathe these questions in and determine the best path forward has been very rewarding.

Who is someone you have looked up to or looked back to as an exemplar for how you hope you lead?

I am a student of politics, and politics made up the first part of my career. The most activated leader was Theodore Roosevelt. His energy seemed endless, and his pursuit of a better way to do things was contagious. Theodore Roosevelt led forthrightly. Besides gaining energy from people who crossed his path, he understood the renewing power of nature. From his days on the ranch to his wilderness adventures, nature played a key role in keeping his spirit alive and enlivened.

On a more personal level, one of my first jobs was working for U.S. Senator Jim Abdnor from my home state of South Dakota. Senator Jim was very humble in his work and considered everyone a part of his family. Add into this mix his decades of public service and love of trying to do the right thing for people, Senator Jim exemplified leading for the people rather than the headlines. I learned a lot about character from him, along with being resilient in pursuit and kind in all interactions.

What one thing or idea or wisdom do you hope people remember you for?

Answering what you want to be remembered for is one of the most difficult questions. The easy answer is being remembered as a good father in what my sons do with what I have tried to guide with and what we have given them as a foundation to pursue their purpose. Being remembered by them is very personal and one I continue to work hard at as our lives move forward in more unbound ways.

Beyond this, I hope some idea or concept I put out into our world becomes something that people come back to over and over again. A key element in this mix is that, when they come back to it, they improve upon it. An idea or concept has a life of its own, improving as it ages. I hope I will be remembered for something good that will be pulled forward by the next generation of leaders and made better.


PathtoPublish_ActivateMillennial Guide and Champion Jon Mertz is the founder of Thin Difference – a forum dedicated to empowering Millennials to be better leaders, build stronger teams, and create richer lives. He also authored Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. He was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders for Trustworthy Business in 2014, 2015, and 2016 by Find out more at


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