Sometimes, Yes. I explained in a post in October that nonetheless, we haven’t found a better term for it. Since then I’ve had time to observe some occasions when it’s legitimately applied and others when it isn’t. And I think there are some useful lessons to be learned.
Let’s start with the most painful and amusing reminder that the term is abused – twitter ridicule. Here are a few from the last week.
- @cunabula 'Thought Leadership' is a language crime.
- @gapingvoid: When I was a lad, using the term "thought leadership" got you a good kicking.
- @adambird: Thought Leadership: A term coined by PR agencies to massage client egos and justify retainers?
- @amarvelousmiss: If someone at work says "Thought Leadership" one more time, I might flip my lid.
On the other hand, there are many accomplished business people who use the term as if it’s as respectable as “bottom line.” Here are some recent posts:
- @Robmeilen, CIO at Sports Authority, “@NRF in NY. Looking forward to some great presentations and thought leadership on Retail”
- Ed Friedrichs, Chairman of Zweig White on a LinkedIn discussion forum yesterday “Thought Leadership is the outcome of a passionate commitment to a subject.”
- Gershon Mader, co-founder of management consulting firm Quantum Performance, “Thought-leadership marketing… was a complete transformation of what we were about and changed our professional life.”, here in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
- Ken Makovsky, founder of award winning PR firm Makovsky + Company, “Thought leadership brings an array of rewards.” in Forbes.com here.
These people understand the term and know what they mean by it and I’d bet none of them has time to waste reading junk.
So why does the term still attract ridicule? Because it’s often misused. Here are a couple of places where that commonly happens.
- The Thought Leadership section of a company’s website. There is a high correlation, I’ve noticed, between a part of a website being titled Thought Leadership, and the content being weak. Suffice to say that companies with strong thought leadership, from McKinsey to Booz to Herman Miller, to name but three, don’t call it that. They call it research, or resources, or articles, or white papers, and they let the market decide whether it’s Thought Leadership or not. This is smart – and it reminds me of a quote from the popular twitter feed, Sh*t my Dad Says, (and even this is redacted); “Don’t start a story with ‘This is SO funny’… Even if you are right you sound like an *sshole”.
- Pundits who claim to be able to turn you into a thought leader. Search on “ways to” & “thought leader” and see how many pages of articles there are offering quick and certain routes to thought leadership, in the vein of “Win some awards!” You can’t become a thought leader by winning awards any more than you can become a world class athlete by winning an Olympic medal. As Ed Friedrichs notes, it’s the outcome of passionate commitment. John Hagel has written lots on that too, for instance here.
Almost anyone can produce thought-leading content if he has a good idea and puts in the effort to develop it into a compelling one. He can also, if he communicates it effectively, establish a reputation for thought leadership. But that’s an honor the market has to award – if you grant it to yourself you look like (see above) and you open up the term to ridicule on twitter.