Defining Thought Leadership (in a Useful Way)

By Bob Buday

With so many marketers exhorting the need for their companies to become “thought leaders” in their domains, we imagine that many individuals in these firms are asking them a simple question: “What do you mean by ‘thought leadership’?”

While the question may be off-putting, marketers need to defend their jargon. And defending it begins with defining the term clearly.

So what is thought leadership? Here’s our definition (and trust us, as my colleague Tim Parker wrote three years ago, we’re not the first to define it): 

“Thought leadership is the eminence an individual or organization achieves after developing, delivering and marketing superior expertise that solves a significant problem.” 

In other words, a thought leader is a person or firm whose expertise has a greater beneficial impact on the entities they are advising than the next firm’s advice.

To construct this definition, we carefully chose our terms:

  • Eminence” – Your audience confers thought leadership status (or not) on your firm – not your firm. There should be no self-appointed thought leaders.
  • Individual” and “organization” – It could be one or the other, or both. But when the organization is perceived to be a thought leader, it must have individuals who are regarded as such. People who want your firm’s expertise want to talk to the people in your firm who have that expertise, and not anyone else.  
  • After” – You should become recognized as a thought leader only after your advice has had a beneficial impact on your clients, not before. Before I believe you possess superior expertise, you’ll have to demonstrate to me that you do. And there is no better proof than clients of yours who have taken your advice and have benefitted mightily.
  • Developing” – It takes lots of experience (and, often, primary research) to become a deep expert in anything. There are no shortcuts here, no instant experts.
  • Delivering” – You can’t just have an opinion. You need clients who have asked you to deliver your expertise in their organization. If you haven’t delivered your expertise somewhere, it’s untested, and therefore you can’t claim to be a “thought leader.” You can only claim to have a thought.
  • Marketing” – If you’re a leading expert, have the proof but the world doesn’t know about it, you’re only a thought leader in your head and the clients you’ve helped. That means, you haven’t gained eminence, and thus aren’t a thought leader.
  • Superior expertise” – Superior means what it means: better than other expertise on the issue. To judge that it’s better, you should have client examples that show superior results.
  • That solves” – You can’t just be an expert in diagnosing the problem. There are many of those experts out there. You need to show you have superior expertise in solving the problem, too.
  • A significant problem” – If the problem isn’t significant, why would the market care? For example, if you claim to be an expert in getting Americans to be sports fans, I’d challenge you and say there isn’t a problem there. Gallup says 59% of Americans were sports fans in 2015, only one percentage point less than the number in 2000.

After laboring through the above dissection, you might be asking a different question: Is a commonly recognized definition of thought leadership important in the first place? We think it is, for a simple reason: to improve the practice of thought leadership. If (by being guided by this or a similar definition) it helps aspiring thought leaders raise their game, it should improve their impact on clients. And that, of course, is a very good thing.

What Most Definitions of Thought Leadership Miss

There are dozens of definitions of thought leadership. But nearly all the ones we’ve read overlook the most important part of getting recognized for having certain expertise: the ability to deliver that expertise consistently well and at scale. “Delivering” is the most important term in the above definition.

Most organizations I know see thought leadership as a marketing exercise – as a potentially great way to create awareness of, and demand for, their expertise. And indeed it is, when the content is compelling and the marketing programs command the right audience. However, companies that aspire to be thought leaders must scale up their expertise if the authors of their papers, studies, books, etc., are the only ones who can provide it. That doesn’t happen unless companies get as serious about thought leadership delivery as they are about thought leadership marketing.

So how do you get delivery right? Delivering superior expertise requires tools, methodology, internal training programs, and recruiting people who can master the expertise a firm has carved out. I wrote about this in a blog post awhile back, which you can read here. And I gave a presentation on it at a conference for knowledge management and marketing professionals in architecture and engineering firms. I explained the rise and fall of a firm I worked at before co-launching Bloom Group. That firm did great job of creating and marketing content that led to a blockbuster consulting service (business reengineering), a market that Gartner sized to be in the billions of dollars annually by the mid-1990s. Yet the firm I worked for did a poor job of scaling up the delivery of their reengineering consulting service. A result of this and other factors, it went out of business by the end of that decade.

That firm provides indisputable testimony of the need to define thought leadership not just as a marketing discipline but also as a service innovation and delivery discipline.

Realizing the Limits of Any Definition

So there is our definition of thought leadership. Despite all that detail, I feel the need to invoke the words of the late Richard Feynman, the Nobel laureate in physics who helped probe the Challenger space disaster and worked on the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project. Feynman believed no phenomenon could be defined with absolute precision. “We cannot define anything precisely," he wrote. "If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers, who sit opposite each other, one saying to the other, ‘You don't know what you are talking about!’ The second one says, ‘What do you mean by know? What do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you?’ "

So with our imprecise definition of thought leadership in hand, we look forward to hearing better and more precise ones. But they better improve the practice of thought leadership, or what’s the point? 

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