What Holds Back Aspiring Thought Leaders

It will sound like circular logic, but it still needs to be said: Great thoughts are the foundation of highly successful thought leadership marketing campaigns. Yes, you need skillful and concerted marketing to distribute those great thoughts widely. But you can invest a lot in marketing some idea and come up empty if your point of view is shallow, has been heard before, and lacks substantiation.

Yet you can also have great processes for developing ideas -- extensive primary research and intensive analysis of the data you gather -- and still produce lackluster content. Why? Because you’ve brought the wrong kinds of people together to analyze the data. Specifically, from two decades of helping consultants and other people analyze data for thought leadership campaigns, I’ve seen four character traits lead to mediocre ideas. Sadly, I’ve seen this happen with research that could have led to compelling new insights – big ideas that would have generated substantial market interest.

The big idea didn’t emerge because at least one member of the analysis team had the license to misbehave. Here are the traits and how they undermine the content development process:

  • Deep insecurity. Over the years, I’ve found that people with fragile egos bristle at being asked to develop their thinking further (no matter how tactfully put). They take questions such as “Do you think that always is the case?” or “I think we’re missing a piece of logic to make this a strong argument” as insults, attacks on their intelligence. This kind of behavior will, of course, stop a promising but nascent idea from being robustly developed and made unassailable. I remember one person telling me that a highly arguable point (with much evidence to the contrary) was right because he said it was right.
  • Extreme impatience. Creating a strong idea, even from easily obtained secondary research (literature and Web searches, etc.), takes time -- several weeks and even months. This is not because of the reason most people think – that the task of writing takes a long time. (For a professional writer, it doesn’t.) Creating engaging, breakthrough ideas on how to solve some business issue requires sufficient time to study the problem and develop new insights on how to solve it. More complex issues that have been written about extensively take longer to develop compelling answers to. All to say that developing exceptional content on a topic (if you aren’t already an expert on it) isn’t done quickly. Two weeks to develop the content of a white paper with no data or even a starting point of view? Not likely if you want something really good.
  • Elevated levels of arrogance. Arrogance is a professional hazard for people who get paid for their advice. But highly arrogant people can be highly detrimental to the content development process. First, they often underestimate the sophistication of their audience. Many aspiring thought leaders behave as if their audience is stupid, to be impressed with anything they say. (I’ve seen this especially in professional services firms with strong brands. The attitude is, “Well, I’m from XYZ Consulting Group, so they’ll believe anything that comes from us.”) In thought leadership marketing, the strength of a company’s brand increases the chances your audience will read your newsletter or email. But if the content is unexceptional, they’ll hold you to the same test they do for every other piece they read. Your firm’s brand won’t make a weak argument strong. Sharp executives see through shallow, unsupported ideas. In addition to being too satisfied with mediocre concepts that they've developed, supremely arrogant people often are allergic to gathering data from outside the work they’ve done – i.e., “best practices” of companies that aren't their clients. The most successful people at the game of thought leadership – people who deserve the moniker “thought leader” (Jim Collins, Michael Hammer, Ram Charan, etc.) – crave learning from organizations with which they were initially unfamiliar.
  • Profound selfishness. The best ideas are the product of extensive research and rigorous, creative analysis. Conducting such research in a short period of time requires a team of people, not an individual. Once they collect the data, those people must then make sense of it – collectively if great ideas stand a chance of emerging. Having several people, not just one, troubleshoot the logic increases the rigor of the argument (if everyone is open-minded enough to listen and not prematurely shoot holes in arguments they haven’t fully assessed). Selfish team members too often want to get the glory, coming up with most or all the ideas. Their goal is not to use the team to come up with the best point of view, but rather to bully the team to adopt their view.

Now it’s unrealistic that a group of very smart people will have small egos, no insecurities, infinite patience and few selfish desires. When those traits come in small or moderate doses, you stand a better chance of channeling those people in the right direction.

But when those traits are excessive, they are corrosive to the process of developing a big idea. You need to think twice before you put such people on your thought leadership “R&D” team or a research project. If you can’t avoid it, set down some rules of behavior before the content development process begins. And play to their hunger to be recognized by the market as a thought leader. Simply explain to them how excessive egos, arrogance, impatience and selfishness will prevent them from becoming a star.

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