Thought leadership is one of those ‘buzzterms’ that gets bandied about, often by the PR department looking for opportunities to boost the reputation of their organisation’s credibility and reputation.
It’s also a topic that has generated cyber-acres of blog coverage on what thought leadership means, what a thought leader does, and how you can become one.
Ironically, few of these posts seem to demonstrate much actual thought on the subject and why, in an era of business resurgence and growth, it is so important.
In some ways, it is easier to explain what thought leadership is by starting with what it isn’t.
Authentic thought leadership is a long way from the commercial jockeying for position that it has been hijacked for.
A thought leader isn’t the spokesperson who gets wheeled out by their organisation to provide media sound bites or ‘expert’ comment whenever the opportunity arises. Nor is it a synonym for other contemporary business monikers like ‘go-to expert’ and ‘trusted adviser’. Thought manager, maybe, but certainly not thought leader in the truest sense of the term.
And the clue to what that really means in the name; thought leadership is about leading the thought, moving with the times, developing new ideas and views around key issues, innovating unique actionable concepts; turning old thinking on its head and taking it to the next level.
Thought leaders certainly never self promote, or troll out company or product-focused opinion, thinly disguised as the voice of leadership.
They don’t borrow or try to adapt the ideas of other ‘thought leaders’ – theirs is an original take on an issue or topic of interest that disrupts the status quo in way that inspires and encourages innovative thinking in others.
Clearly it does require an authoritative knowledge on a particular topic, one that can provide answers to the questions that people ask. But a genuine thought leader sets the agenda by identifying the most important of those questions and then answering them, in doing so, raising their own level of authority via their thought leadership.
Thought leaders have a unique perspective on a hot topic. It might not be specific to their current job or even to the industry sector in which they operate, but it will be topic that they are passionate and knowledgeable about, one that they are able to lead and influence the thoughts of others on.
And that is the biggest difference between the populist definition of thought leadership and authentic leadership of thought.
While the former is quite one dimensional and self restricting – being an expert doesn’t necessarily influence anyone else’s thoughts – the latter has the capacity to change the thinking and behaviours of many people; sometimes entire organisations.
Think Seth Godin, Jack Welch, Richard Branson; when they speak, people don’t just listen, they readjust their own thought processes, even if they don’t agree with everything they say.
It is a powerful tool that can be integrated into an organisational culture, to influence on a much wider scale, provoking others to explore and change their own, often outdated beliefs, and ultimately drive innovative thinking.
Being described as a thought leader, someone who is not only at the cutting edge of their industry or field, but shaping it, is a rare compliment, one of the most difficult to achieve.
The role of thought leader is not one that you can choose to take, just because you see yourself as the foremost authority on a particular topic. Genuine thought leaders are deemed so by those whose thoughts they lead and influence; making it a position that has to be earned, rather than claimed.