Why Good Thought Leadership Requires a Decider

Every so often, I come across a poignant insight from a legend in some field about a practice that's important to thought leadership. I heard the latest one in a PBS “American Masters” documentary about the late, illustrious Broadway and Hollywood director Mike Nichols (“The Graduate,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” and many more). 

“One man can’t make a movie,” Nichols said. “But, it’s necessary that all the decisions … come from one mind.” 

That’s good advice, especially when it comes to the production of thought leadership.

A big, big problem in thought leadership arises when multiple people contribute to a piece of content – whether a blog post or a book and everything in between – and there’s no director, no singular view. This can happen when several experts in a firm are working in the same area and all want their names on an article. Often, even though they’re colleagues, they can’t agree on a point of view – either the core problem they’re addressing or the solution to that problem, or both. 

Say one author believes there are four keys to the digital transformation of the supply chain. The second author says two of them are really the same, so there are only three. The third author weighs in to say she doesn’t feel the core problem has been framed correctly; the issue is not just about how to transform the supply chain, it’s how to transform the products that move through it.  

Arguments like these can go on for what seems like forever. If left unaddressed, they will lead, eventually, to a flaccid point of view, a muddled argument, and a thought leadership disaster. Even before that, it’s likely to result in the production of a dozen or more drafts, with months passing until one author gives up and withdraws, muttering about the incompetence of the firm’s content director. One firm we know was on version 24 of a draft, with each version getting worse and worse as the authors wrangled and the firm poured money and time down a black hole.  

Ending the Madness

Making a movie is a far more complex undertaking than writing an article, but Nichols’ insight is still germane to thought leadership. By the way, I don’t think the answer is always to have one author; multiple authors are useful for big, research-heavy articles, books, and so on, or when a topic is so complex and broad that it requires the expertise of several people to do it justice.  However, it is essential always to assign defined decision rights to authors, and to yourself (the thought leadership marketer), in two areas:

  • The core argument. There can be many authors, but there can only be one decider on the core argument. That is the role Nichols played in directing his movies. The thought leadership marketer must ask the authors to choose “the decider,” and stick with him or her. The decider’s role is tie-breaker, debate-ender, determiner of a profound, clear argument about some business problem in the world and a better way to solve it. The decider needs to control the outline process. (We recommend outlines as the tool to developing the argument, rather than using drafts of prose to do that job. My colleague Dave Rosenbaum has written about this.)
  • The prose. The language chosen to convey the argument must be marketing’s territory, otherwise a War of the Words, as I’ve written about before, is likely to erupt. The authors should respect the marketers’ ability to communicate; that’s why they were hired. 

Another legendary film maker, Francis Ford Coppola, of “The Godfather” fame, once said, “The secret to making a great movie is making sure everyone is making the same movie.” 

In thought leadership, that can only happen when there’s one, and only one, decider on the argument, and one, and only one, decider on how it should be expressed.

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