Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of magazine Strategy & Business magazine, created the term “thought leadership” back in 1994. Kurtzman used the term to refer to people “who had business ideas which merited attention.” Since that time new ideas have emerged about what thought leadership is and the role of the thought leader. As this term gets used to describe subject matter experts, influencers and other functional roles, it may now be time to reimagine thought leadership to address the changing needs of our time.
Webster’s Dictionary defines a thought leader as one whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential. I would agree with this updated definition with a slight refinement. In my opinion, a thought leader is an individual who is committed to contributing valuable, original thinking and ideas on a subject to benefit the greater good. The individual is in service to the idea, issue or innovation with the goal of fostering change.
Thought leadership on the surface may appear as a solitary endeavor. Many of its pillars are rooted in individualism, yet I believe that it’s a collaborative endeavor. At the basic level, the thought leader needs people to lead. The relationship between the thought leader and her stakeholders is nuanced. Leadership takes on a different definition, as the thought leader doesn’t seek to control how the audience responds or contributes to the cause. Instead, by arming them with new information, the thought leader empowers the audience to contribute to the dialogue that shapes the progress of the issue as best they can. From advocates to naysayers, everyone is of equal importance. The advocates will help to build the movement while the naysayers help the thought leader to continually revisit and refine thinking and best distill her approach. Both groups are critical to achieving true thought leadership and bringing about change.
The thought leader operates from a place of service, constantly answering the questions, “How am I contributing to the discourse? How am I helping to disrupt or change the current state of things?” The thought leader’s role is to provide the platform for this new thinking while the “team” (followers, colleagues, influencers and opponents) contributes to helping to amplify her messages.
The thought leadership life cycle is not static; it’s in constant motion. If we examine the life cycle of a thought leader, the process is a continuum — with no specific endpoint, as the thinking should always be evolving, changing, growing.
There are assumptions that once one becomes a thought leadership club the work is done. However, if you are truly in service to the issue, you continue to innovate and evaluate your thinking, identifying new ways to bring attention to and support your subject.
In this digital age, we have access to more information, more resources and more exposure than ever before, sometimes allowing us to confuse temporary popularity, particularly in the social media sphere, with true thought leadership. Social media allows one to more easily and quickly gain ground for their ideas and thinking. A simple like on Facebook it is not the be-all and end-all, nor is it a substitute for a fully conceived approach to platform building that takes time, energy and originality.
While most of what I’ve focused on thus far appears to be cerebral activities, thought leadership also requires an emotional investment: vulnerability. For someone to share their views and bring their ideas forward requires a high level of vulnerability and authenticity. At stake is usually one’s ego juxtaposed against their reputation in the market. Risking it all for the sake of making it to true thought leadership status is a task that one shouldn’t approach lightly.
As someone who has worked in the social change space for over a decade, I have witnessed monumental changes on important societal issues as a result of fierce commitment by thought leaders to bring about change.
When we consider reimaging thought leadership, there is an opportunity to structure the focus to be less on the leader and more on the issue. Once again, the concept of service becomes pivotal to this new approach to thought leadership. It is at the heart of the theory and seeks to combine one’s passion, expertise and thinking all for the sake of accelerating progress.
Over the years I have worked with a number of experts and advocates who sought to build thought leadership platforms. Some were prompted by disappointment with the status quo or lack of movement on particular issues, while others believed that there were other considerations, viewpoints that could catalzye change. To birth an idea and watch it grow in a way that transforms the world we live in in a big or small way makes it well worth it and at the end of the day an opportunity to be of service.
What is your definition of thought leadership?