I have seen several posts and tweets lately on how the term “Thought Leadership” is overused, hollow, and should be abandoned. Some of them are pretty funny, and I have followed some tweeters because I enjoyed their barbs – despite the fact that they’re lampooning the phrase (and concept) I use to make my living. Here’s one from @skemptastic on Tuesday: “blogged an arrow-filled diagram accompanied by thought leadership-y picture. soon i will be the CEO of the world.”
Gotta laugh. But what’s going on?
At the Bloom Group, we use the term thought leadership to describe material that shows the market that you have experience and expertise in a specific field (real experience, real expertise, not simply an impressive CV and a jargon-filled vocabulary) and have a novel, unique, and useful point of view based upon that experience and expertise. This should incline sensible people with problems and issues relevant to your area of expertise to look to you for help. I mean, that makes sense, doesn’t it?
Lots of companies publish stuff they call thought leadership, but isn’t. I could point you to dozens of corporate websites where this junk resides, but I won’t. (Nobody likes to be told their baby is ugly and it’s stressful when one of these firms rings us up and we have to run around and clean up our blogs because we’ve been slagging them.)
Faux thought leadership is an issue—arrow-filled diagrams that aren’t really about anything, for example—but we’ve seen this phenomenon many times before. I remember learning as a child that the word quality, used to describe a toy gun made in Taiwan, meant anything but. Now there’s a word that’s been misused for decades (at least). But it’s also a word that, in the right context, ought to be taken seriously. When Ford pronounced it Job #1, most people were inclined to believe it (if only because Ford needed to catch up with Toyota.) Plus, whether or not Ford’s use of the word was meaningful or simply hollow marketing was subject to the consumer’s objective, verifiable judgment. And since Ford followed through, and prospered, we believe them now even if we didn’t then. Quality, in this case, meant something important and most people are instinctively able to differentiate its use by Ford from its use by a company such as that Taiwanese toy manufacturer.
The proof is in the pudding, as it were, when it comes to Thought Leadership. It’s easy to dismiss it without taking the trouble to look into what it’s based on, tarring everyone who uses it with the same brush. Obviously, you must have a credible claim to be a thought leader before you can credibly claim to be one. Put differently, we recognize a leader by whether he has any followers, not by his own pronouncements. And it was ever thus.
So I don’t plan to abandon a useful phrase just because it’s oft misused. In any case, I don’t know a good alternative, at least not in the world of marketing. One consulting firm I know calls it “Reputation Building.” That’s fine for internal use (if you know what it means), but in the wider world that’s ambiguous.
I plan to keep the phrase, and keep to the high ground. I’ll continue to support clients who want to publish (in whatever medium) quality material that their clients and prospects will value. Instead of abandoning thought leadership, I’ll continue to give a wide berth to anything that claims to be but isn’t.