thought leadership“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

I read a post here not too long ago about what marketers get wrong about thought leadership.

The problem, the author suggested, is they pump out truckloads of generic content that all says pretty much the same thing as the next marketer’s truckload of generic content.

The secret to being seen as a thought leader, he posited, is to do a better job of forging connections with stakeholders by finding out the kinds of questions they ask and “developing thought leadership” that responds to them.

This advice (see also: circular definition) stuck in my already jam-packed craw.

Thought Leadership is Not a New Concept

Almost every article out there treats thought leadership and content marketing as one and the same.

That was true when the steam train and Pony Express were the most effective means of spreading ideas.

In 1878, the essayist, lecturer and staunch abolitionist Ralph Waldo Emerson was described as manifesting “the wizard power of a thought-leader.”

A few years later, the eternally optimistic preacher and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher was described as “one of the great thought-leaders in America.”

To write and speak about the critical issues of the day was thought leadership back then.

It was all there was.

Thought Leadership 1.0

That remained true right up through the waning years of the BG era (i.e., Before Google).

A few bylined articles and a couple of speeches at industry conferences were still all it took for the public relations department to anoint a previously uninspiring executive as a thought leader.

That was OK because the goal was mainly to generate more media exposure and speaking invitations on whatever topic was near and dear to the executive’s heart.

Audiences were small and segmented, and competition for eyeballs and eardrums remained limited.

The term “thought leadership” was simply strategic shorthand.

Executives who engaged in such activities didn’t need to call themselves thought leaders.

The medium was the message, and the attention was its own reward.

Enter Google

The arrival of search engines changed everything.

Any sentient being with a thought and an internet connection suddenly had access to a potential audience of millions (and soon billions) of people who now had a way to find them.

And at virtually no cost to either of them.

Knowledge was completely and forever democratized.

Anybody could claim to be a “thought leader,” anytime, anywhere, on any subject.

Thought Leadership is More Than Helping and Sharing

Therein lies the problem.

If everyone is a thought leader, no one is a thought leader.

Consider this: Does delivering high-quality content about how to make more effective use of content to position oneself as a thought leader make the author a thought leader on thought leadership, or a thought leader on content marketing?

The answer is neither.

At best, it positions the author as someone who has ideas, opinions, and possibly even meaningful insight to offer that helps others create more interesting and relevant content.

It’s helping and generously sharing knowledge.

It is providing a point of view.

It shares expertise. It’s a lot of things.

But it’s not leadership.

Not when the internet is crawling with self-proclaimed mavens, gurus and trusted advisors all saying the exact same thing.

That’s not to say that using content to demonstrate expertise and a deep understanding of customers’ challenges and gripes isn’t a smart and valuable thing to do.

But it makes somebody a leader as much as publishing a blog with grandma’s recipes makes them a master chef.

So What Does Thought Leadership Mean?

It means bupkis.

It’s a socially acceptable way to say, “My thoughts are better than your thoughts.”

It’s time to distinguish thought from leadership.

As Gini Dietrich said here recently, thought leadership needs a new moniker.

One that says what it is and doesn’t masquerade as a meaningless title.

If content marketing lacks sufficient cachet, how about expert visibility, knowledge marketing or insight selling?

That’s step one: repackaging thought so it does what it says on the tin.

Step two is to bring clarity to leadership and what leaders do.

But first, let’s get an important “don’t” out of the way.

Leaders don’t call themselves leaders.

They don’t have to.

Their behaviors give it away.

Leaders define the issues and challenges that are most critical to the stakeholders, industries, and communities they serve and channel their energy and intellect into addressing them.

They use their influence to bring others together and guide them to find common ground.

Thought leaders don’t just write and speak about issues, although that’s certainly part of the job description.

They lead the dialogue and marshal constructive and collaborative action for change.

Five Key Behaviors

Reputation Architects’ Leadership Architecturesm model identifies five key behaviors of thoughtful leaders:

  • Dig deeply to uncover and define the issues that are most important to stakeholders. They may not be what you expect, or the ones the company would otherwise choose to address. Whatever they are, they must be as relevant to customers and other stakeholders as to the company’s vision, mission and strategic direction, if not more so.
  • Own the data that substantiate the issues, and become the principal source of that data and related insights for the media and others. Consider partnering with academic institutions or prominent non-governmental organizations to lend additional gravitas.
  • Be seen in the right company by aligning with credible third parties who complement and amplify the organization’s efforts and points of view. Professors, retired regulators and legislators, analysts and even other corporate leaders bring credibility and even greater attention.
  • Be the convener. Don’t try to solve every problem or own every discussion, event, or public meeting.  Becoming the convener of respected people and organizations who come together out of mutual interest is just as powerful.
  • Lead the dialogue, but don’t monopolize it. A confident leader is comfortable sharing the spotlight. Always vying for attention can drive off critical supporters and stakeholders. A steady flow of subtle reminders about the organization’s role conveys humility, shouts from the rooftop exude an overinflated corporate ego.

Let’s Call it ‘Thoughtful Leadership’ Instead

Some would call this thought leadership, although I prefer to think of it as thoughtful leadership.

Executives and organizations that engage in thoughtful leadership see it not as marketing, but as an opportunity to meld vision, strategy and corporate responsibility in the service of something bigger than themselves.

The motives need not be 100% altruistic, of course.

Corporate initiatives put the concerns of stakeholders ahead of competitive self-interest and enhance reputation and relationships, foster employee engagement and create a sustainable advantage with media.

Thoughtful verus thought leadership—what do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Jon Goldberg

Jon Goldberg is the founder and CEO of Reputation Architects Inc, a management advisory firm focused on building, protecting and restoring reputations in a world of evaporated trust and unprecedented stakeholder engagement. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Public Relations Society of America’s Counselors Academy, a director-at-large of PRSA-New Jersey and has held senior management roles at Prudential Financial, J. Walter Thompson, Edelman and Porter Novelli. He can be reached at [email protected].

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