According to Wikipedia, the term was coined in 1994, by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz, Allen & Hamilton magazine, Strategy & Business. Among the first to be designated as “thought leaders,” were British management thinker, Charles Handy, Stanford economist Paul Romer, University of Michigan strategist, C.K. Prahalad and his co-author, Gary Hamel, a professor at the London Business School.
It’s clear that genuine thought leaders are in good company. But it should also be obvious that not every person – or every organization – can aspire to achieve thought leadership. It’s clear that simply regurgitating commonly recognised truths (or plagiarising Wikipedia articles) is unlikely to get you all the way there. Some original thinking is going to be required. So what exactly is a “thought leader”?
So What Exactly is Thought Leadership?
According to Craig Badings, author of “Brand Stand: Seven Steps to Thought Leadership”, “Thought leadership is about delivering new ideas and content to your target publics based on deep insights into the business issues and challenges they face. In the process, the value you deliver should go well beyond merely selling your product or service. Your thought leadership point of view should differentiate you from your competitors, establish you as the ‘go to’ expert in that field and position you as a trusted advisor …”
Well, that’s a partial explanation. It helps to define the “what” but not, perhaps, the “how”. I’ve already indicated that original thinking is likely to be required. But a fresh perspective on a familiar topic can also be highly impactful. Above all, I would suggest, you need to stimulate and occasionally provoke your audience to abandon – or at least challenge – their existing perceptions. And thought leadership by itself is of little value unless you can earn the position – as Craig points out – of trusted advisor.
From Thought Leader to Trusted Advisor…
Whilst organisations and individuals can earn trusted advisor status without necessarily being identified as thought leaders, having an original perspective can certainly help – if it is relevant to the prospect’s situation, and if your perspectives are delivered with authority, consistency and quality. Tone of voice is important – the most effective thought leaders are considered, rather than boastful, persuasive rather than prescriptive. They join their followers on a journey, and above all, they earn trusted advisor status through conversation and interaction, through a two-way dialogue rather than a one-way broadcast.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that thought leadership is a relatively modern concept. It’s certainly true today’s interactive marketing and sales environment is much more conducive to establishing the sort of genuine thought leadership that leads to trusted advisor relationships than the old publish-and-broadcast approach. Personal professional networks that used to be measured in hundreds at the most can now extend to thousands and beyond. Our capacity to both influence and be influenced is greater than it has ever been.
A Thought Leadership Toolkit…
I thought that it might be useful to share some of the ideas that have helped clients achieve thought leadership positions in their markets, and trusted advisor status with their customers and prospects. First, it’s absolutely essential that you maintain multiple touch-points in your markets and communities. What are the trends? What are people concerned about? Who are they influenced by? Who are the innovators – the customer pioneers that are leading the market forwards?
But beyond that, it’s critical that your organisation develops an enquiring mindset, and the ability to recognise patterns and synthesise new directions before they are obvious to the market as a whole. Insist that people across your organisation (not just executives) spend time with your most demanding customers. Share the learning. Implement fast-cycle trials of the ideas that emerge. Challenge yourself to do better and to react faster.
But above all, if you aspire to thought leadership, reflect on the thoughts of George Bernard Shaw: Don’t restrict yourself to seeing things as they are and asking, “why”. Dream instead of things that have not yet been, and ask “why not?”