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Arment Dietrich

Is Thought Leadership Just Business Jargon?

By: Arment Dietrich | April 16, 2013 | 
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Is Thought Leadership Just Business Jargon?I’m tripping over thought leadership these days.

Stubbing my toes on #thoughtleader hashtags and barking my virtual shins on “how to become a thought leader” articles and posts.

Welcome to our digital world in 2013.

With the rise in popularity of inbound marketing, content creation, and the ongoing migration of offline to online, the terms “thought leader” and “thought leadership” are close to being overused.

Is “thought leadership” just business jargon?

As it turns out, no.

What is a Thought Leader?

We all know them when we see them. A thought leader is an individual, company, or organization regarded as expert in a specialized area or industry. The thought leader is recognized by colleagues, competitors, customers, and prospects as having progressive and innovative ideas and as having been successful in effecting change. The thought leader is one you think of first. The “go to” person.

We have always had thought leaders among us. We just didn’t describe them that way. Wikipedia states the term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz Allen Hamilton magazine, Strategy & Business.

Fast forward to 2013, when both term and related activity have become ingrained in our lexicon.

Why is Thought Leadership Important?

According to Forbes, “A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.”

Being perceived as a thought leader has commercial benefit. Having a leadership position in the marketplace builds business and drives sales. People want to do business with leaders. We talk about, blog about, read about, and watch those who are developing creative and audacious solutions to problems.

In Hayden Shaughnessy’s post, “The Growth of Thought Leadership as a Marketing Strategy,” thought leadership is described as essential as companies search for new markets, where they have no presence but see opportunity, and as they seek to defend their positions from competitors. He describes thought leadership as a strategic necessity in an era of “hyper-innovation,” social enterprise, and social media.

Thought leadership drives new directions. Pushes the economy forward. Makes the rest of us think, question, discuss, and purchase.

Where Do Thought Leaders Come From?

Thought leaders can develop organically. We’ve all known someone who is wildly creative, persistent, hard-working, and vocal. Who has been willing to take the time to study and work at her craft, to learn from his mistakes. Someone who has pushed past the fear of how it looks, how it should be done, and has produced magnificent results. Or controversy. Or both.

To some degree, thought leaders can be created.

The perception of thought leadership can be built using today’s digital tools. We can create content marketing strategies to position our clients as leaders within their industries. There are logical steps that can be taken to build online presence by researching, sharing content, asking questions, speaking out, and building relationships in social networks. Over time, these programs can yield terrific results.

There’s just one catch: Thought leadership can’t be successfully created in a vacuum. It doesn’t thrive without a degree of passion and genuine involvement. People today can sniff out a fake, or a half-hearted attempt. It isn’t just about coming up early in search or driving more traffic to a website.

As Daniel Rasmus says, “Thought leadership should be an entry point to a relationship. It should intrigue, challenge, and inspire even people already familiar with a company. It should help start a relationship where none exists, and it should enhance existing relationships.”

It can be executed poorly and can come across as phony. As fakery or, as Kimberly Bordonaro puts it, as being a “Sucka MC.” Being outed for trying to be something or someone you’re not, can ruin your credibility and reputation. This applies to individuals and to brands.

Where Does that Leave Us?

Thought leadership provides value in the marketplace by driving innovation, instigating change, and creating new ideas. If you find yourself jonesing for the position of thought leader in your community or industry, look around you. Do some research. Examine your strengths and weaknesses. What can you do to innovate, instigate, or originate?

If you are tasked with creating a thought leadership program that produces results, have fun with it. Do the research. Understand what is being done now and where there are opportunities to do something new. Help your client see the benefit of being involved and being genuine and the risks of being found out as fake. Build a program that fosters your client’s ability to understand what his customers are asking and to answer those questions in multiple formats. Help her create dialogue by inviting others to participate.

Don’t let the terms “thought leader” and “thought leadership” get under your skin. Understand there have always been, and will always be, a segment of our society who are born leaders, thought or otherwise.

You, or your client, may be one of those.

Now lead, follow, or just get out of the way!

22 comments
CraigBadings
CraigBadings

Allen it's overused because it is abused.  The amount of self-labelled thought leadership content around is a pox on the name.  Unlike leadership which is often a title given to you whether you deserve it or not, true thought leaders have the title or recognition bestowed on them by an audience i.e. it is earned.

Far from a mere jargon or fad, good thought leadership requires a disciplined approach and in many instances a culture that supports it - much like you have cultures of innovation, sales, customer service, etc in organisations. As the wave of content marketing sweeps our world it will be the people and organisations that elevate their content to thought leadership-type content who will clearly differentiate themselves leaving the everyday content producers and curators in their wake.   

biggreenpen
biggreenpen

You know, Allen, I have to get to a meeting so this is an "express" comment (as opposed to taking the "local" comment train :-) :-)). My main thing about thought leadership is that I think in reality that TRUE thought leaders are few and far between ..... and that often it is not the people purporting to be "thought leaders" who deserve to be called that! Hopefully I can come back later and read this more slowly b/c I think you make some great points.

wbresee
wbresee

I was prepared to say that it is overused and perhaps it is.  But the more I think about it I have to say it is a pretty concise way to say "someone with pretty good ideas".  I don't believe that they can be made.  You have it or you don't.  What can happen is that we can embolden and sharpen communication of thought leaders.  Find them in your teams and give them a pulpit.

Elizabeth Ruske
Elizabeth Ruske

Allen, we completely agree with you; thought leaders are confident and courageous and willing to put their beliefs out there, regardless of others opinions. @tiaracoaching we strive to help women step into this confidence with grace and power. When I hear the words #thoughtleadership or thought leader, I immediately think of an experienced, proven leader in a particular area.

You are only a thought leader if your thoughts evoke someone to want to know you and/or find out more about you or what you are sharing. One thing we see happening in our #womensleadership programming is that women are extraordinarily creative but in many instances lack the confidence to just put it out there.

TaraGeissinger
TaraGeissinger

I agree -- becoming a 'thought leader' isn't something that you can just plop down on your monthly To-Do list and make it happen. :) From what I have seen, true thought leaders are selfless. They're the ones publishing the in-depth articles that go beyond the topics that everyone else is glossing over. And they're readily available on social media, often chiming in on conversations and answering questions. I suppose you CAN make it happen, but for the most part it's an organic process.

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

Maybe there should be some certification process for thought leaders. Like you have to have 10 examples of others calling you a thought leader before you can claim the title in your Twitter profile. No doubt thought leaders exist, but they are becoming as painfully common online as self-proclaimed gurus, mavens and ninjas.

Reminds me of that Thatcher quote that's been floating around in recent days: "Power is like being a lady... if you have to tell people you are, you aren't." Just substitute thought leadership.

bittner
bittner

@allenmireles Sometimes I think "thought leader" is just the douchebag version of "leader."

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