Define Thought Leadership To Get Ahead

Successful pursuit of a thought leadership strategy means first defining your ambition. Start with this sound definition.

Are we on the same page?

I approach the topic having been involved in thought leadership efforts for a number of financial service companies that had varying levels of success with their thought leadership programs, where messages worked very well or less well, and the cultural and linguistic issues were identified and managed to different degrees. Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from the experience is that a thought leadership effort requires a common understanding/definition of thought leadership. Otherwise, problems can arise.

One clear challenge for organizations that have either embraced or are intending to embrace thought leadership is to nail down exactly what kind of thought leadership they want to produce and identify their intended audience. The fact that the definition of the term ‘thought leadership’ remains elusive, and does not translate easily into foreign languages can severely hamper efforts in multinational firms to agree on a course of action. Even in situations where everyone speaks the same language, thought leadership often means different things to different people.

Also known as…

As far as business jargon goes, thought leadership is not the worst term out there. It does however lend itself to considerable confusion and misinterpretation due to its seemingly straightforward meaning. Variants on the term ‘thought leader’ exist, and range from equally serious constructs such as opinion leader or guru, to the more vernacular rock star or even ninja.

Pictured: Teenage Mutant Thought Leaders? By 専門店の即時から via Wikimedia Commons

Coming to terms

For my money, it’s hard to beat the definition provided by Clayton Christensen, professor at Harvard Business School, who in an interview stated:

“I would define a thought leader as someone who stands above subject-matter expertise and is an authority in their field. And they have to be able to prove that expertise with a track record. Think of it this way: subject-matter expertise resides within a company. Thought leadership resides within an industry. Thought leaders provide clarity, especially to industries that are in flux. They teach.”

At face value, the term ‘thought leadership’ suggests being at the forefront of innovation and the ability to offer new ideas. But this is a narrow view that–while fairly clear for an individual–hinges too much on a single person and thus makes it harder to apply to an entire company. To anchor thought leadership in a wider organizational context, I offer the following definition:

Thought leadership (n): the practice of achieving an ongoing dialogue using educational content that influences how your audience thinks in order to achieve recognition as a trusted expert in your field.

A thought leader plays 3 roles: 1) recognized expert, 2) valued communicator and 3) muse.

1. Recognized expert

It’s widely agreed that the designation of ‘thought leader’ is socially defined–that is, it’s a function of being perceived by others as such. The definition calls out the social nature of the concept by identifying an audience along with the role to which one aspires–that of trusted expert. It implies a relationship just as leadership does between leader and follower(s). Note that obtaining recognition as a trusted expert is the goal or stated objective here (‘in order to achieve’) which gives it a sense of purpose.

2. Valued communicator

This definition also offers an indication of how this occurs: through an exchange of ideas–educational content–that are both helpful (people find a use for it) and compelling–meaning that the audience values it so highly that they  strongly embrace and even shared it with other. It’s important to distinguish the kind of content that’s transmitted as thought leadership content from more garden-variety content such as product specifications or advertising which companies produce in abundance.

3. A muse

Describing the nature and impact of the type of content that is transmitted defines what kind of thought that we’re dealing with here. The message must be formulated in such a way that it leads the audience to change their way of thinking (influences or significantly alters the way they think)–that is, in receiving the message the audience cannot help but react, though how this is accomplished will vary. It may be done by re-framing a familiar issue and portraying solutions in a new light, offering up data that shocks or surprises, advocating actions that run counter to current practice, etc.

Now head that direction

This definition provides guidelines as to the actors, mechanics and purpose of thought leadership. As you can see, this interpretation strips away the sheen of thought leader as innovator or contemporary Einstein that consistently churns out groundbreaking ideas one after the other–a difficult if not impossible task.  By highlighting the audience and the nature of the content, it shifts the focus to that of a strategic communicator acting as a guide to prospective and existing clients. It also places thought leadership squarely in the realm of content marketing.