Thought Leadership…What is a thought leader, and what does thought leadership mean in today’s business world? As much as some people wish it wasn’t so, a thought leader is not someone who simply restates someone else’s views and positions.

Furthermore, beyond uniqueness of thought, a true thought leader’s positions also challenge established norms and conventions. Moreover, the true litmus test for a thought leader is when their unique ideas are implemented in the marketplace, they tend to create disruptive innovation, and often change the way we view the world. In today’s post I’ll examine the subject of thought leadership in an attempt to separate fact from fiction…

It is certainly much easier to look back in time at world leaders, Nobel laureates, religious scholars, philosophers, and captains of industry to identify historical thought leaders than it is to identify today’s visionaries. This is due to the fact that thought leadership was once a term reserved for a limited few. Regrettably the label of thought leader has evolved to become a self-bestowed title for anyone who has something to say or promote, often without regard for qualitative issues. Some would say that the term thought leader, once synonymous with futurist and innovator, is more closely aligned with snake-oil salesman today. Don’t get me wrong, true thought leaders still exist; they are just much harder to spot these days.

Let me begin by stating that authentic thought leaders, the real deals, are not created via great marketing and PR alone. While they are oft published, quite outspoken, and many times represented by marvelous publicists, they are not merely contrived, self-promoted legends in their own minds. Rather true thought leaders are born out of real-world successes, achievements, and contributions that have been recognized by their peers and competitors alike. Their work is widely regarded as being innovative, disruptive, and market altering. They are not the posers, but the players. They are not spin masters trying to make it, but are the undisputed market leaders that have already arrived.

It is also important to draw a distinction between personal or corporate branding and thought leadership. While thought leaders often become well recognized brands, there are many well crafted brands that have messaged thought leadership where none exists. Don’t allow yourself to get caught-up in the spin and hype associated with great marketers who will gladly accept compensation, but will leave you woefully disappointed when it comes to living-up to their billing. Look for real results based upon market leadership, and not just brand leadership alone.

The best example I can give you about discerning the difference between brand leaders and thought leaders is that of large consulting companies. I would challenge the brand perception that McKinsey or Bain are the true thought leaders in their sector. I would submit that you will find the true innovation and thought leadership taking place at the smaller consultancies. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that there is almost an inverse relationship between size and thought leadership in the consulting world in that the bigger a firm is, the less likely they are to be innovators. Rather it is those firms chasing the big brands that must innovate to survive, and that often employ today’s thought leaders. I have walked into many businesses that were branded as market leaders that hadn’t come up with a new idea for years. The fact of the matter is that the more institutional a firm becomes, the harder it is to maintain an entrepreneurial edge driven by a culture of innovation.

While I don’t want to belabor the point and unfairly pick on large consulting firms, I think it’s important to go a bit further with this train of thought. You see, the legions of twenty and thirty-something consultants employed by Accenture, McKinsey, Bain, Booz Allen Hamilton etc., haven’t lived long enough to even form their own thoughts much less become thought leaders. One of the problems I have with large consultancies is that they often label themselves as thought leaders (strike one). They repurpose generic materials across industries and sectors and spin “old” as “innovative” (can you say best practices? strike two). They have regrettably become pimps of mass merchandised mediocrity (strike three).

As noted above, espousing “best practices” propaganda has nothing to do with thought leadership, but has everything to do with creating mediocrity (see “The Downside of Best Practices“). What I have witnessed time and again is that these purported thought leaders have in reality weakened businesses, damaged brands, and commoditized competitive advantages for many entities, which ultimately adversely impacts their profitability and sustainability. I know my perspective may appear jaded, but I’m so tired of reading the drivel of people that don’t have anything unique to say, who have been deemed as brilliant up-and-comers that I’m beginning to turn a deaf ear to all the noise.

I have nothing against the term thought leader, however it is my opinion the label should be reserved as an honor to bestow upon a select few, and not a title to be adopted by the masses. Dilution has the opposite effect of scarcity in that it diminishes value. Can you remember when the title of Vice President or Managing Director actually meant something? I can…if you’re tracking with this thinking, you might find a previous post entitled “Title Proliferation” to be an interesting read.

Bottom line…judge people on their actions and results, not their rhetoric. Don’t accept conventional wisdom as gospel unless you can validate proof of concept, and then only accept it if you can innovate with it, or around it. Challenge everything in business by looking to improve upon the status quo and differentiate yourself from your competition. I don’t advise my clients to adopt the practices of their peers, but rather to be disruptive with their innovation such that they create or widen market gaps between themselves and their peers. Lastly, when you run across a real thought leader, you’ll clearly recognize them as such for there is something truly unique in both their words and deeds.


Image credit: iMed Global