What is a Thought Leader?

What is a Thought Leader?

What is a thought leader?

A thought leader establishes a unique perspective on some aspect of the world. A thought leader shares their perspective, and they bring people along in their learning journey. Thought leaders don’t lock into a perspective and keep repeating the same ideas over and over. Thought leaders recognize local variances, the evolution of ideas over time, and the impact of their ideas on others.

Traditionally thought leaders are people. The earliest thought leaders were academics and politicians, revolutionaries, and religious leaders. Some of the most famous names in history remain known because of their thought leadership. Think about Da Vinci, Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, Madame Currie, Saul of Tarsus, and Galileo. Regardless of the topic for which these distinguished historical figures are remembered, all of them are remembered because they shared their unique perspectives with the world, and the world decided that the ideas were worth preserving and propagating. Most of these people were driven by ideas as ambition, not as ambition supported by ideas.

Other people define thought leaders, not the person or organization that aspires to be one.

What is a thought leader? Pensive leader.

Modern thought leadership often follows the latter though. Marketing teams often seek to establish an organization as a thought leader, not a person. IBM, Microsoft, and SalesForce want to be considered for their thought leadership regardless of the leadership at the helm. Those organizations may channel thought leadership through various leaders, but the aim is on the long-term association of the organization with ideas, not individuals.

Individual thought leaders often write books. General Electric (GE) spawned two thought leaders in Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt. Both were thought leaders while at GE, and continued to share their lessons long after their departure. Jack Welch wrote a book about winning, that wasn’t always followed by Immelt. Immelt wrote his own book on lessons learned from GE. While GE remains a large organization, it no longer sits atop the icons of global industry. New leaders are much more likely to turn to Elon Musk as an example of a management thought leader because his Tesla and SpaceX companies represent innovations that GE is not producing.

The point here is that modern thought leadership is potentially fleeting. Its ephemeral nature, and therefore the ephemeral relationship between thought leadership and people, comes from the large population, the history of established fundamental ideas (thinking of something new is hard), and the churn of relevance and currency as ideas fade in popularity or get replaced. A thought leader on consumer electronics videotape recording probably does not have much a following today. The technology peeked, its influence and innovation subsided, and its impact on life and business withered. Today’s thought leaders in magnetic storage focus on solid-state memory devices. Leading-edge thinkers work on quantum storage. Unlike fundamental arguments about poetics or politics established by Aristotle, the fundamentals of tape-based memory did not create a knowledge base that requires deep perpetuity to a wide audience.

Beyond the fundamentals of business, few thought leaders in the world of business create new categories of ideas that will place them on the edifice of history. Musk may remain as the person who established commercial space flight. SalesForce’s Marc Benioff may persist as they creator of CRM. But most CEOs and the companies they are associated with will fade in influence overtime, and from the annals of thought leaders.

Why be a thought leader?

So this all sounds a bit defeatist coming from a thought leadership coach. Save the modern management leaders, none of the people mentioned above considered themselves thought leaders in the sense we say thought leader. They were certainly leaders in their fields and produced work, be it art, literature, or scientific publications, and many sought to influence others. Da Vinci actively marketed himself as a weapons engineer, perhaps more so than he did as an artist. But they did not think of themselves as thought leaders.

What is a thought leader?  Senior leader.

The modern world with its billions of inhabitants and millions of channels changes the equation. Because there are so many people, with such varied skills, working on behalf of so many companies, modern thought leadership derives from the need to differentiate. Thought leadership becomes part of the set of strategic imperatives that an organization can deploy to position itself in the market, frame its value propositions for goods or services, and to make itself attractive to talent.

And individuals leverage thought leadership to increase hourly rates, speaker fees, or to land unique jobs within an organization. Some thought leaders might argue they aren’t motivated by economics, but explorers, inventors, and researchers all require some source of funds to finance their travel, experimentation, or learning. Being a thought leader increases the likelihood of attracting financing.

If an organization wants to be a leader, it needs to be a thought leader and to have thought leaders working for it. To be perceived as leaders, organizations need to invest in thought leadership marketing. And that means actually being a thought leader (learn the basics of becoming a thought leader here). It means not saying but doing. It means delivering results for customers. People associated with failed start-ups know that thought leadership isn’t enough. Ideas require implementation and a delivery of value to the market.

Thought leadership has its benefits for individuals and for organizations. Thought leadership usually increases the runway for an idea that might sputter out sooner without the white papers, videos, presentations, and social media posts to buoy them as they seek traction, or that help establish permission for an organization to take a meaningful position on something.

In a world filled with noise, thought leadership offers a focal point for rationality. It offers order in the interpretation on chaos. Good thought leadership gives people a reason to pay attention for more a little bit more time.

Thought leadership as a role

Thought leadership is often an undocumented leadership skill. Some leaders come by it naturally, others need to be taught, perhaps even convinced, of the value of their role as thought leaders. Few have thought leadership included in their job description outside of a vague reference.

I worked with a very operationally oriented vice president at a software company who had no aspirations for thought leadership. But the organization needed him to be a thought leader because he was the face of the division. I spent many hours crafting presentations, writing speeches, and developing white papers that did not have my name on them. They had his name on them or were delivered by him, with me in the wings capturing lessons learned. Did he participate in the content creation? Yes, and no. He certainly had areas where he would not venture, but he rarely pushed back against innovative ideas embedded in the content, and seldom offered his own thoughts. What he did bring was personal credibility and authenticity when we crafted stories that tied back to his rural childhood.

What is a thought leader? Ladder from writing concept.

Regardless if a thought leader possesses all of the skills required to execute thought leadership personally, or if the leader needs some coaching and guidance, the following list outlines the key skills and attributes a thought leader needs to include in their portfolio:

  • A unique point of view or vision
  • Passion for their subject
  • The ability to articulate their ideas: writing and content development
  • Verbal communications (giving a presentation)
  • Research
  • Collaboration (with staff, other thought leaders)
  • Confidence
  • Empathy for their field of influence
  • Curiosity and life-long learning to remain relevant
  • Influence in their field via respect from an audience
  • Comfortable with travel

People who aspire to be thought leaders need to nurture all of these skills and attributes. And they probably need to do so independent of a company that aspires them to be a thought leader, because, as you will read in the next section, organizational thought leadership purposefully decouples from people so that it can survive departures with llttle or no impact on the perception of the organization.

Thought leadership for organizations

Marketing professionals seeks to make organizations thought leaders. They do so through the leaders they work for, but their focus isn’t to turn an individual into a thought leader, but to have thought leadership from individual accrue to the organization.

This style of thought leadership often forms from papers, videos, or other content that attributes an idea to the organization, and then leverages internal or external thought leaders to reinforce the idea, and more closely associate it with the company’s brand. Most people would be hard-pressed to name an individual as the thought leader for IBM’s hybrid computing. They have them, but they are not known outside of the technical enclaves that build hybrid cloud services. If you look at an example of IBM’s thought leadership content, though”written” by a general manager, the content is really about value propositions and proof points. I’m sure Rodrigo can deliver them well during a presentation, but I doubt that he created the framework around the value propositions (though he may well have paid for that work out of his budget).

The point is, that organizations only tie their thought leadership to individuals as a convenience of the moment. The thought leadership is so generalized it could easily be attributed to any person in a given role.

Like individuals, organizations need to invest. They need to market thought leadership with similar fervor that they employ for a product or service. Profits matter, but so do perceptions. Valuations, especially for young companies, come not from what they have done, but what they promise to do. Thought leadership helps build the credibility and trust required by an organization doing new things.

What is the legacy of a thought leader?

Very few thought leaders persist. Thought leaders turn over with fads and consumer interests, with the evolution of technology, and with shifts in political fortunes. The thought leaders that persist will have some universality to their message, an elevation above the tactics of moment. Some might say they speak a universal truth.

Thought leadership does not depend on the successful adoption of ideas by followers, nor does it make any moral judgment on the ideas. Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx remain thought leaders. Both suffered flaws in implementation beyond their control. And they speak to very different constituencies who seek to maintain their respective legacies. They also both continue to have adherents to their ideas.

Some thought leaders will have a legacy. But people don’t spend money for legacies. They spend money, build business relationships, and employ people here and now. The legacy of a thought leader doesn’t matter in the moment. What matters to an organization, and perhaps to the individual, is that their ideas are making the world a little better right now—that what they think and how they say it, changes people’s lives or offers insights into them.

So just what is a thought leader?

In the end, other people define thought leaders, not the person or organization that aspires to be one. Some thought leaders are reluctant to become thought leaders because their ideas prove so powerful, even in their public persona aren’t polished as it could be.

Thought leadership derives from others through respect for the credibility and authenticity of the thought leader. No one can declare themselves a thought leader. Thought leaders are chosen, but usually not until they have created a considerable body of work that speaks to their knowledge. There are degrees of thought leadership, or at least spheres of influence that differ. A thought leader in an obscure technical area may be highly influential and respected among peers but known very little outside that domain. Others may have global followings with the name and visual recognition that comes with it. Both are thought leaders in their own way.

A thought leader helps make sense of the world. A thought leader organizes ideas in a new way that seems obvious upon reflection. Most importantly, a thought leader helps you see the world through their eyes.


For more serious insights on thought leadership click here.

Cover photo credit: Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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