Ask 100 different people what thought leadership is and you’re likely to get 200 different answers. When I worked at a PR agency, thought leadership was almost a sacred term, something either mentioned reverently or desperately coveted. But no one ever really spent a whole lot of time defining it, giving it parameters, so when clients requested it, no one was sure what to deliver. At best, it was a hodgepodge of opinion pieces and bland, recycled points of view.
So, let’s take a crack at defining thought leadership, shall we? The cynical definition is that a thought leader is someone who’s thinking about leading and one day might actually do it. While this isn’t overly helpful, it does point out that fundamentally, what we’re after is leadership. In this context, look to the old English root laedan, “cause to go with oneself; march at the head of, go before as a guide, accompany and show the way; carry on; sprout forth, bring forth; pass (one’s life).”
The Wikipedia definition is only marginally better. “being a thought leader means to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of the target audience on a particular topic.” What are the biggest questions, and how is this any different than regular leadership?
Here’s my attempt at defining the term.
A thought leader is someone whose thinking changes how you lead.
Whether it’s through new information, a different point of view, a synthesized insight that we weren’t about to put together ourselves, a thought leader’s thoughts change how we run our organizations.
Their thinking helps us to be better leaders. When we look at the definition of leader, the etymology of it – someone who can show the way, someone who can guide, someone who marches at the head of – we see what leaders need. They are responsible for guiding, showing the way for their organizations. But how do they know the way? How do they know what’s going to work and what’s not? That’s the role of a thought leader – someone who can help the leader by adding to their thinking.
It’s important to note that a thought leader does not necessarily need to be in a position of formal leadership themselves. This is especially true if we want more diverse, more inclusive examples of thought leadership; there are great thinkers in every population, but due to biases and discrimination, some of those folks will never have been allowed access to formal leadership roles. That doesn’t mean their thinking is any less valuable – so be sure to look for thought leaders beyond just a job title.
For example, journalist Malcolm Gladwell is often cited by many marketers for his works like The Tipping Point, Outliers, and Blink (among others). He’s not in a formal leadership position, but he does have thinking that helps marketers reframe their understanding of behaviors. The same is true for researcher and professor Brené Brown, whose work on courage and empathy has changed the thinking for many leaders. These are not folks in formal leadership positions, but their thoughts have changed how many of us lead.
Thinking that changes how we lead is a useful benchmark for evaluation who is and is not a thought leader. Thought leadership in that respect is inherently unique, because if we know everything a prospective thought leader is proffering, then their thinking won’t change how we lead. Back in my PR agency days, executives from clients would be put forth as thought leaders, but when I read what they had to say, there wasn’t a single original thought from them. At best, all they had to offer was recycled thinking from a reputable publication like Harvard Business Review mixed with pimping their companies.
How do you become a thought leader? Cultivate original, useful thinking. Granted, that’s about as useful as telling someone who wants to be wealthy to buy low and sell high, but it’s also the bare, essential truth. You must think about things in a unique, different way that, when others consume your thinking, changes how they do things. Simply parroting someone else won’t do it.
I’ll leave you with this last, amusing definition from data scientist Eduardo Ariño de la Rubia: “Any sufficiently advanced trolling is indistinguishable from thought leadership.” There’s a solid grain of truth to that and something to consider as you forge your path towards becoming a thought leader.
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