What to know, and avoid, to truly be a ‘thought leader’

by | Nov 29, 2018

Does there exist, in the language of business and nonprofit leadership, any phrase more overused and yet misunderstood than “thought leadership”? (okay, “synergies” and “digital transformation” aren’t far behind, but you get my point). It seems every organization these days, from mega corporations to small nonprofits, want to be thought leaders. They seek that cool vibe that comes with being able to push ideas, and their audience’s knowledge, forward – often with a not-too-subtle agenda of enhancing their organization’s image or brand.

TED talks started the craze 34 years ago, although Benjamin Franklin might be considered the founding father of thought leadership, having launched the American Philosophical Society in 1743 with a mission “to improve the common stock of knowledge.”

In the modern business world there are many examples of thought leadership initiatives in action: Amsterdam-based electronics giant Philips launched a Future Health Index to envision the low-cost, high-impact healthcare system of the future. Coca Cola is trying to help lift people out of poverty by running job training programs for youth in the favelas of Brazil.

doesn’t just sell shoes, it’s “making a positive impact in communities where we live and work.”

Indeed, the motivations for engaging in thought leadership range from a true desire to move thinking forward on a topic, to feel-good corporate social responsibility to, more cynically, pure brand green-washing.

Yes, today everyone seems to be a thought leader, but in practice few really get it right. Organizations that rush blindly to declare themselves thought leaders do so at considerable risk. Successful thought leadership requires pitch-perfect, compelling messaging and high-level communications skills. Use of jargon or demonstrations of facile thinking can undermine a brand reputation to a sophisticated audience, much like a politician who appears out of touch with voters. Leading thought in any area also, by definition, requires an organization to be ahead of the crowd, which exposes the organization to criticism and loss of support.

There are, however, ways to do it well. Successful thought leadership can be summed up in one word: Authenticity. A useful general definition of thought leadership appears in the 2013 book “Ready to be a Thought Leader?” by business consultant Denise Brosseau:

“Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success. Over time, they create a dedicated group of friends, fans and followers to help them replicate and scale their ideas into sustainable change not just in one company but in an industry, niche or across an entire ecosystem.”

Organizations succeed best when their thought leadership strategy:

  • Aligns with the mission


    • Patagonia has a mission statement that goes well beyond selling sportswear for trekking around the world: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Its thought leadership efforts are entirely aligned with this mission, comprising of initiatives to fight pollution and promote fair labor practices throughout its supply chain.
  • Is intentional, results-oriented and has a clear call to action for its audience


    • For 20 years, the Cisco Networking Academy has been training students in developing countries for jobs in computer networking, thus smartly combining altruism with enlightened self-interest.
  • Appears to mitigate societal shortcomings inherent in the organization’s own offerings


    • Shell Oil Company has an ambitious goal to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2070. It helps Shell to counter the argument that it doesn’t care about climate change. But critics also call it a ploy to appear green, pointing out that their model assumes “continued emissions growth in the short term, then radical reductions and negative emissions in the long term.”
  • Points to a future that also addresses a core vulnerability within the organization


    • A few years ago, American Express was perceived as having a millennial problem. Young professionals, if they carried any credit cards at all, were flocking to the Sapphire Card, by JPMorgan Chase. So AmEx switched its product set, beefed up its digital prowess, and launched a thought leadership initiative called OPEN Forum, which invites entrepreneurs to share business insights and tips on strategy, networking, marketing and technology.

It is important, therefore, to develop a refined definition of thought leadership, such as exploring answers to questions that cannot be found elsewhere. It is also important to fulfill a need, or fill a gap, to be successful in becoming recognized as a thought leader in a certain area. The format these leadership efforts take will depend on who the ultimate audience is, and in what ways they like to consume content (e.g. reports, documents, videos, social media posts).

One other thing about thought leadership: The impact is difficult to measure. Metrics can include web traffic, brand recognition, sales, consumption of reports and other publications, policy direction or change, number of mentions in the media and social media, or number of citations. Most of these impacts are themselves hard to measure – and it’s difficult to establish a causal relationship as many other factors may be at play.

Bottom line: Before your company or nonprofit decides to embrace thought leadership, make sure 1) it’s based on an authentic desire to make a change in something bigger than the organization; 2) the topic leverages your unique expertise and aligns with your strategic goals; and 3) you have some way to measure results.

If done well, your brand might experience a boost in recognition and credibility. But more importantly, your organization might end up playing a small role in contributing to big changes.

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Mike Mills


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