Is There Really Such a Thing as Thought Leadership?

The Thinker

While “thought leadership” is not a new phrase or concept, it’s certainly en vogue right now. In fact, thought leadership is one of the most frequent asks in the Requests for Proposal that cross my desk. And the interesting thing I’ve learned from talking to these companies is that there are different definitions of what it is; different expectations about what it looks like; and, different beliefs about what it can accomplish.

As recent headlines and sound bites have featured fallen thought leaders, rising thought leaders and those who only think they are thought leaders (you know who you are), I thought I’d offer my perspective on the topic and a few tips for using thought leadership as an effective strategy for your personal or corporate brand.

Defining thought leadership

While there are several acceptable ways to define thought leadership, I define it as an earned outcome of a purposeful, integrated communications strategy. Key ingredients include passion, relevant experience, meaningful content, and a point of view. Thought leadership can apply to an individual brand such as Warren Buffet, a regular go-to on financial matters, or it can apply to organizational brands like client Mayo Clinic, renowned for and consulted because of its healthcare leadership.

Succeeding with thought leadership

  1. Think 401(k) rather than impulse buy. Thought leadership is not a tactic –it’s the outcome of a well-executed strategy designed to achieve a specific goal. So, much like working with a financial planner, start with the end in mind. Know who you are trying to reach and what you want them to think or do as a result of your thought leadership strategy. Also, just as your retirement plan requires a series of small investments to drive a return, thought leadership will require a series of supporting tactics, over time, that build up “credits” with your key stakeholders, whether they be consumers, investors, or the media. Thought leadership should be approached and managed as you would a long-term investment. It’s not a one-and-done effort, but a series of efforts that has a cumulative impact.
  2. Focus on giving rather than receiving. While it’s true that at the end of the day the ultimate measure of success will be how any strategy, including thought leadership, helps to build your brand and drive revenue –whether you are a nonprofit looking to reinvest in your mission and your people, or whether you are a for-profit needing to deliver a return to your investors –if you approach thought leadership as a direct ROI play, you’ll fail. Thought leadership is more about social sharing –about raising the bar in your industry –about challenging conventional wisdom –about offering a perspective, or information or tools that add value to your readers, listeners and viewers. While thought leadership is about your unique voice, it’s not about you…..or your company, its products, services and solutions. It’s not about selling –leave that to your sales and marketing team. Thought leadership is about engaging with people mentally and emotionally through the power of ideas and perspectives.
  3. Resolve to be brave and surround yourself with a smart team. As with anything worth having, there is some risk involved in pursuing a thought leadership strategy. It will require some level of vulnerability. Not everyone will like or agree with every thought or perspective you offer. And that’s okay. Don’t let that hinder you from continuing to lead with conviction. You’ll be in good company. Think Eleanor Roosevelt. Jeremiah Denton. Angelina Jolie. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thought leadership also will require an investment of time. Allot for it. Lastly, thought leadership will require creativity and diversity of expression, from writing to video, and from speaking to posting. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to support thought leadership, whether for an individual or an organization. You must stand out, but you don’t have to stand alone.

What individual or organization do you most admire for their thought leadership? Please share your thoughts with us below.

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