Thought Leadership Requires Thoughts and Leadership

As a firm that helps organizations build, grow and protect their brands and reputations, it’s common for clients to ask us to help establish them as thought leaders. After all, what company doesn’t want to be the go-to expert in their respective space?

But logic suggests that not everyone can be a thought leader, and not every thought leader is the same. Part of determining thought-leadership strategy means looking in the mirror and asking whether you have the discipline, the courage and the vision to make it happen.

Thought leader profiles

If Yogi Berra were still alive, he’d say the best thought leaders are ones with compelling thoughts and strong leadership. Simple, right? Nope.

First, an organization must come to grips with what kind of thought leader it can be. At Padilla, we generally see three types:

The sage: this is the company with a long history who has seen it all and can put industry change into context. Successful “sage” thought leaders have the courage to question their own status quo, because if they don’t, someone else will. Microsoft would fall into this camp as it helps move people from desktop to cloud. Lots of companies came before it, but when Microsoft—the undisputed leader in desktop computing—talked about the value of the cloud, people started adopting en masse.

The disruptor: the new upstart that’s challenging the way things are being done today. The truly credible ones do so while at the same time backing up their words with specific actions demonstrating their ability to deliver. That’s the “leadership” part of thought leadership. We normally think of Tesla in this vein, though time will tell whether the company can deliver on its promise of a mass-produced, affordable electric car.

The convener: this is the organization that steps forward and brings disparate groups together to solve a common problem. Conveners must set aside their egos and put the cause before their own visibility—otherwise others won’t want to take up their mantle. An example here might be United Way, which serves to help convene organizations around solving hunger, poverty and other pressing social issues. But it also could be Apple (normally thought of as a “disruptor”), who is largely credited with helping solve the issue of digital rights management for the music and entertainment industry.

Having (and sharing) an opinion matters

Knowing what kind of thought leader you want to be is a start, but then you need the courage to express a strong point of view. Thought leaders have a vision that’s different than their peers, and they’re willing to express that vision even if it makes others (including their own customers and employees) uncomfortable. True thought leaders step outside of their industry norms to share their point of view on where the world, or the industry, or the category, or the consumer (you get the gist) is headed.

Can the market leader also be the thought leader? After all, thought leaders question the status quo, and market leaders are the status quo. They can, but it requires a willingness to question and strategically disrupt their own status quo. Thought leadership, at its core, is about change and transformation, and that doesn’t happen without a strong vision—and most importantly, sharing that vision beyond the walls of your organization. And it means establishing a content and connectivity strategy that builds and grows your reputation as a true thought leader. No organization ever became a thought leader by keeping opinions to themselves.

Own it and act on it

Finally, you need to make a long-term commitment, acting in a manner that supports your thought-leadership platform. Thought leaders without actions are industry pretenders. Market leaders questioning their own status quo must take action to support their long-term vision, and disruptors need to show that they can consistently perform.

The truly remarkable companies convince stakeholders to believe in their view of where the world is going and their ability to deliver on that vision. That is thought leadership, and it’s a true competitive advantage for today’s best organizations.

This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s, May 2019 – PR Firm Rankings Issue.

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