Thought Leadership

How to think for ourselves is a luxury


Thought leadership, or, as we call it in Italy, “mangia.” It's last night's pasta, but with more Parmigiano Reggiano. Thanks to the Internet, it has never been easier to claim to be a thought leader.

    They're every marketer's favorite words. But is thought leadership not just another name for pushing an agenda? Is it thought control? And if everyone claims to be a thought leader, who’s following? Are thought leaders running out of thought?

    These are some interesting questions raised in a conversation sponsored by The Writer# with Cristina Ampil, Managing Director, U.S. Thought Leadership, PWC and Nick Portet, Creative Director, Wreyford and led by Nick Parker, who's now into explaining things#.

    Before we start talking about writing and getting the word out, it's worth figuring out what thought leadership means. Do we recognize it? Is it just a buzzword to get attention?

How we define a term says a lot about our opinion

    Let's investigate. Many have attempted definitions#, with mixed results. We do get the idea of what these fine people are thinking about as they try to explain it. Mostly, there's a general tendency to conflate what we want it to do with what “it” is. Which gets us back to “mangia.”

    More luck on what we think “it” offers. Some people suggest it offers something different—information, insights, and ideas. Maybe thought leaders help us think through complexity. Or maybe they help us categorize things, or see things in a new light. 

    The most desirable explanations include a few lines about what “it” does. Because here the consensus is fairly even distributed—thought leadership establishes you as an industry authority and resource. This is the money bit, we can convert it into advice.

    Said advice establishes reputation on condition of generosity. And the best part is that with social media, anyone can become a thought leader.

    Irony aside, the idea of breaking “it” down in parts has merit. Thought leadership breaks down into two words.

Breaking it down to build it up

    David Bohm says, “thought produces results, but thought says it didn't do it.” The problem is that everything that exists today, our laws, products, even our nations, are the product of thought. In other words, thoughts are valuable and create consequences.

    We also believe we think individually, but much of thought is what we do together. Things work the way they are, and we are a certain kind of person—a marketer, a free spirit, an Italian—because those are the assumptions about society, business, us.

    People of different backgrounds and experiences usually have different assumptions and opinions about things. Opinions we tend to defend. This is how online we get to, “someone is wrong on the Internet.” 

    Also, we often have feelings associated with thoughts. We're often not aware of the consequences of our thoughts. The thought may give rise to a feeling. They're connected, but we tend to consider them separate. Getting rid of the feeling is not easy without seeing the connection to the thought.

    The simplest definition of leadership is the ability or capacity to lead. If thought lends credibility to the expression, this part gives it direction and coherence. Can we separate the big ideas from other kinds of thoughts?

The role of time

    Whatever meaning you take for thought leadership, a term that has been in use since the late 19th century, it takes time to mature ideas. You need knowledge and expertise in a particular field or niche. Some also say you need a level of commitment to stay with the idea. Being willing to buck the status quo or the way things have always been done may be part of it.

    Taking the time to develop something valuable seems to contradict today's imperative for speed and volume. There's a sense that one needs to be out there all the time. Cristina says there's pressure to publish and share vs. thinking about the idea. You need content to build an audience, and space to think of the idea.

    Nick (Portet) says a lot of thought leadership also seems to be about admiring the problem. But what about “when the ball is going to hit the window?” We need more thoughtful things and take the time to focus on them. 

    Real things of value are rare because they take time to develop. Once developed, value never disappears, it just shifts from an area to another. The idea of helping someone think through an issue or situation commands a higher margin. Hence why thought leadership is such a popular term. 

Making a difference

    It seems the more we try to explain what it is, the more questions we find. Is thought leadership the ability to understand the business problem? Are subject matter experts thought leaders? Is profit necessary? Is it a valid form of recognition?

    Maybe, in the same ways as “your brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room,” (Jeff Bezos), thought leadership is something others think about you.

    Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of Strategy + Business magazine# said, “A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”

    Kurtzman thought he could develop a vehicle for business ideas (at the time those of Booz Allen Hamilton) that would make a difference in the world at large. A difference is something worth making.


See also:

When we Work on Tree-Ideas, we Are History