The Fight Club Rule of Thought Leadership

Views, advice and opinions on thought leadership abound. Trawl the world wide web long enough and you’ll stumble across debates about the ‘real’ definition of thought leadership or whether a company (rather than a person) can be a thought leader. The Fight Club rule of thought leadership, on the other hand, enjoys seemingly unanimous agreement.

The first rule of thought leadership is you do not talk about thought leadership.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise origins of the Fight Club rule of thought leadership. I make no claims as to authorship. You can find recent posts referring to the rule here, here and also here. (Sidebar: the formulaic first rule of Fight Club lends itself to pretty much any business or social media topic, which means there’s a whole section of the internet dedicated to corporate riffing of a single line from a 1999 movie. Why it’s reappeared after 14 years is anyone’s guess–possibly an interesting observation related to demographics and blogging).

 In practice, there are two corollaries to the rule.

 Corollary 1: You do not apply the moniker ‘thought leader’ to you or your colleagues.

This morning while eating breakfast I saw a guest political consultant on a news program call himself a ‘rock star’ on national television. The fact that he did so to prove a point he was making nearly caused me to spit half-chewed cereal and milk across the kitchen. The lesson? If you choose to behave like that you’ll probably come across as boastful, arrogant, pretentious, or just plain silly.

 Self-proclaiming yourself a thought leader is counterproductive to your desire to be seen as an expert. Audiences will be less receptive to your message. Know-it-alls tend to monopolize the conversation and be more close-minded: two things aspiring thought leaders should avoid at all costs.  Also, a recent study shows that people suffering from narcissistic personality disorder have fewer brain cells in a certain region of their brains…which means you risk being a few sticks short of a full croquet set (kidding: the science is still out on that one).

While there’s not a single, agreed definition of the term thought leader, most online commentators tend to agree that it’s a mantle bestowed upon an expert earned through years of hard work in an industry. Fly-by-nights and self-promoters need not apply.

Corollary 2: You do not apply the moniker ‘thought leadership’ to the materials you publish or the words you speak aloud.

You’ll find the term thought leadership plastered on brochures, web pages, smartphone apps, etc. This is also a no-no, for the same reasons as Corollary 1. This one proves tricky, though, because while it’s easy to follow, the genie is already out of the bottle. The IBM Institute for Business Value, for example, offers “leading edge thought leadership and practical insights for business executives.” SAP’s website offers thought leadership by topic. Both firms are frequently cited for the high quality of their thought leadership platforms. Does the label ‘thought leadership’ irritate their B2B audiences? Not enough to make the practice obsolete, obviously. In the financial services industry–my sandbox, so I won’t name names–plenty of firms similarly group white papers and other materials on a landing page under the banner of thought leadership.

The bottom line.

Not every company reaches the point of being recognized as a thought leader. Those firms and individuals that are successful appear to respect Corollary 1 and portray at least an outward appearance of humility. So it makes sense to respect Corollary 1. Clearly, the same cannot be said for Corollary 2, which appears to be more of a stylistic preference than a hard-and-fast rule. Ultimately, you’ll gain agreement within your organization as to whether you follow the Fight Club rule of thought leadership and its corollaries.

Do you follow the Fight Club rule of thought leadership and its corollaries? Do you know of any other generally-accepted rules to conducting thought leadership?

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