What Is Thought Leadership?

With thought leadership exploding as the next big thing in B2B marketing, there has been an eruption of punditry offering to define it for us. A search on “What is thought leadership?” returns about 34,000 citations on Google. And it seems a new attempt at definition arrives in my mailbox via Google Alerts every few days. Here’s how one that arrived a couple of weeks ago starts out: “The problem is, no one can agree on what thought leadership actually means.”

Says who?

And what’s going on?

Partly, I’d suggest, that when we attempt to define something we are trying to own it. If your definition becomes the definition, you can lay claim to being the expert. Unfortunately for you and other would-be colonizers of thought-leadership land, the term has been commonly used in business marketing with a shared understanding of what it means since the 1980s. So what are all these new definitions bringing us that we didn’t have before?

Mostly confusion, I’d suggest. Precisely what thought leadership tries to combat.

For those of us in the actual business of helping people create thought leadership, definitions may vary. But a practical thought leadership definition is “The reknown a company or professional acquires by being pubishing new, informative, and useful material on a compelling, complex issue that positions them as an expert in their field.” Many of the thousands of opinions referenced above do, in fact, describe legitimate variations on that theme.

But many definitions (and nothing that follows is made up, at least not by us) are profoundly useless:

  • Thought leadership can come from any source. (Possible, I suppose, but how does that help me?)
  • Thought leadership requires targeted focus. (As does anything worth doing except daydreaming.)
  • Thought leadership is about perception. (No, not really. It’s about what you do with your perceptions.)
  • Thought leadership should be an entry point to a relationship. (As should be a good cocktail, with a little luck and a following wind.)

Definitions should provide a basis for mutual understanding. We define our terms so our partner in a conversation, typically a business conversation, knows what we’re talking about. If a definition is successful – if both parties agree upon it – we achieve a common frame of reference and it becomes possible to use the term to communicate. Without that agreement, we’re in Looking Glass-world with Humpty Dumpty who insists (much to Alice’s frustration), “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” Mr. Dumpty doesn’t care if Alice understands him. Like most of the characters Alice meets in her adventures, Mr. Dumpty is a perfect solipsist; he loves the sound of his own voice and actual communication is the farthest thing from his mind (or yolk).

The plethora of attempts to define thought leadership seem to me to be more about claiming ownership of the term than communicating anything of value about it.

This also goes for those who define it by telling us what it isn’t:

  • Thought leadership is not a science. (This is simply wrong. If science means having a system for investigating problems rather than guessing at them, thought leadership is a science.)
  • Thought leadership isn’t about you. (Fair enough, but not in the least bit helpful.)
  • Thought leadership isn’t created by marketing. (Agreed, although unless it’s aligned with it it’s pretty worthless to the company that’s paying for it.)

Some ask what thought leadership is and then answer by describing the characteristics of thought leaders:

  • Thought leaders are brave. (And handsome.)
  • Thought leaders come in every shape and size. (As do snowflakes.)
  • Not all experts are thought leaders. (And not all thought leaders are experts and so on and so forth.)

And a few pronouncements are just barmy:

  • The medium is not the message. (This is pure gibberish; Marshall McLuhan taken out of context.)
  • Pizza Hut is a thought leader in the American pizza industry. (Yes, what I want after a hefty slice of pizza is a refreshing cinnamon stick.)
  • Thought leadership is human. (As opposed to … ?)

Does this nonsense matter? Yes. It makes it difficult to talk about thought leadership with business people who want and need it. It creates confusion where clarity is needed. The people purveying the nonsense don’t matter: they’re easy to ridicule and tune out. When leading lights in the industry such as former Booz CMO and Chief Knowledge Officer Tom Stewart talk about thought leadership, people — especially business people with budget authority — listen. Stewart recognizes that thought leadership must be cutting edge, and must be tested to see if it’s viable or just words piled high.

Most of the authors whose gems I have quoted here will never be cutting edge, and they certainly won’t prove their definitions with an example of client success. (Remember, they don’t believe thought leadership is a science.)

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