Who has international influence? Rather than any particular field or institution, it turns out to be the individual stars of various specialist areas. This is true of all the fields of knowledge analyzed. It’s notable, however, that a particularly high number of religious thinkers are represented at the top Global Thought Leader ranking:

– Popes Francis and Benedict in first and sixth place,
– the Dalai Lama in second place and
– in fourth place the thought leader of atheists, the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

The ranking analyses more than 200 thinkers from around the world, looking at their influence in the English-speaking digital infosphere, and aggregates different criteria into one overall Thought Leader rank (full details of the method here).

Religion reigns supreme

The fact that this ranking gives so much prominence to religion reveals on the one hand a strength: questions of faith are a global phenomenon. As a religion with a global presence, Christianity is in a position to shape intellectual and media discourses on a global scale. Global – except in two regions: in non-religious China and in the predominantly Muslim Arab cultural area, no Popes appear in the ranking of influential figures. Instead, the top three spots in the Arab analysis are occupied by three Islamic theologians.

Stars not spheres

Yet this result also reveals a weakness: NO other discourses are global phenomena. Whether human rights or climate change, migration or digitalisation, war or peace – no topic, no discipline is prominent in the GDI’s network analyses. Instead it’s the lone luminaries of each sphere that stand out in the Thought Leader network: the Russian human rights activist Garry Kasparov (third place), the climate campaigner Al Gore (10th place), the physicist Stephen Hawking (15th place) or the chimpanzee ethologist Jane Goodall (19th place). As individuals, they may extend their influence far beyond their own specialisms, yet no global connections arise from this that could establish special significance for these specialisms – except in the case of religion.

No Trumps or Buffetts

One set of influential figures is absent from the GDI ranking, namely the powers that be: the Trumps, Merkels, Zuckerbergs and Buffetts. This is because the evaluation didn’t include figures whose influence is based more on their position than their thinking. For one, this applies to all active politicians and for another to (almost) all managers and entrepreneurs. In this case, exceptions prove the rule: Elon Musk (21st place), for example, exerts more influence through his ideas (such as the Hyperloop and the Mars spaceship) than his products (Tesla). Former politicians such as the former US Vice President Al Gore (10th place) or the former Irish President Mary Robinson (seventh place) were for the most part able to make the grade as candidates. This wasn’t the case this time around for former US President Bill Clinton: after all, the attention he attracted in 2016 was less for the ideas of an elder statesman than as a potential First Gentleman to President Hillary Clinton. Well, next year both Clintons – now no longer active in politics – may well be included in the Thought Leader analysis.

Harvard makes it possible

Any pointers on the best way to go about becoming one of these Global Thought Leaders – short of being elected Pope? Perhaps the easiest route leads through Harvard. That’s because no other university appears anywhere near as many times in the CVs of the most significant idea generators as this training ground for the elite situated near Boston. 50 of the 223 thought leaders researched either studied or taught – or did both – at Harvard. The next best-placed universities, England’s Oxford and the US haven for engineers, MIT, just about manage half as many mentions in the CVs of Global Thought Leaders.