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!