What Is Thought Leadership?
What Is a Thought Leader?
Thought leadership is a popular business buzzword. But, like many buzzwords, its meaning and use are hard to define and are often confused and misused. So I’ll break down its meaning and relationship to other related concepts.
Let’s start with the definition of a thought leader. Thought leaders are those who are recognized as experts in a community of followers, a business network, industry, or the public due to their knowledge, education, special talents, insights, and/or experience. Their philosophies and opinions can influence the thoughts, opinions, and attitudes of others. Thus the term thought leader.
Academics (professors, researchers, etc.), philosophers, authors, columnists, and speakers are commonly respected as thought leaders, even though a thought leader can be from almost any walk of life.
Thought Leadership Versus Leadership
We must make a distinction between thought leadership and leadership. Someone can be a leader without being a thought leader.
For example, those in management positions at an organization (company, nonprofit, military, government, schools, etc.) may lead and manage the organization’s operations well by virtue of interpersonal skills, knowledge, experience, expertise, job title authority, etc. While these qualities could influence the thoughts, opinions, and attitudes of those under their leadership, their goal is not to be a leader of thought. Rather, they are responsible for getting people to think and act in ways that accomplish the goals of the organization.
As should be obvious from this discussion, leaders are charged with getting things done, often having an official job title with a specific sphere of authority. While they may influence the thoughts of those they lead or serve—and that is a preferred situation—it is not always a requirement for accomplishing specific goals. There may even be times were leaders have to achieve organizational objectives in spite of their followers' ideological differences and lack of emotional buy-in.
Conversely, thought leaders often don’t have any official authority or control over their followers and may answer to no one but themselves and their agendas.
Leaders get things done. Thought leaders get minds won.— Heidi Thorne
Thought Leader Versus Influencer
So are thought leaders influencers? Yes and no.
Influencers, as we would describe them in the context of social media, may not necessarily influence because of their expertise or knowledge. Rather, social media influencers may influence others by virtue of their celebrity, charisma, or other qualities.
Another differentiating factor between thought leaders and influencers is motivation. Many social media influencers are motivated by opportunity, often of the financial kind, from sponsors and advertisers who want to reach the influencer’s audience of followers. While thought leaders may also have dollar signs in their sights from speaking and other publicity, usually their motivation is based on pushing their views and agendas, not the products of sponsors. In fact, some thought leaders would be appalled at the thought of “selling out,” or being swayed by any sort of payday, because it would damage their reputation as unbiased thinkers in the communities they influence.
Like influencers, thought leaders can leverage social media to push their opinions and worldview. It’s just that their motivations are different.
Thought Leadership Versus Market Leadership
Businesses may seek to gain a thought leadership status to build their reputation in the markets they serve, in the hope of increasing sales opportunities and attaining market leadership through greater market share. Therefore, much of their marketing may be dedicated to content marketing activities such as blogging, podcasting, public speaking, and public relations, as opposed to advertising.
Native advertising—paid (sponsored) articles and content in mass media and online—may also be employed. It’s a bit of a cheat in terms of true thought leadership activities. But it does give businesses more control of their content placements when compared to regular public relations efforts.
Like social media influencers, businesses have an economic objective. As such, their interest and motivation in being thought leaders may be short lived... until the next hot marketing tactic comes along.
This is not to dismiss business’ thought leadership pursuits, especially if these activities provide value to the market and communities served. But it will be a trend to watch as the blogging and content marketing landscapes continue to get more competitive. Though they may not carry the same price tag as traditional advertising, content development for thought leadership can be a significant investment that must produce sales. If it doesn’t, business will discontinue it in favor of more productive marketing tactics.
How Do You Become a Thought Leader?
Becoming a thought leader may be intentional or unintentional, although intentional efforts are more likely these days as businesses attempt to gain or regain market attention lost to ad blocking technologies and overcrowded competitive markets.
Unintentional thought leadership is still possible for those who gain attention due to some major achievement or notoriety (e.g., an award, exemplary performance in an unusual situation, surviving a crisis, etc.).
But if thought leadership is more of a deliberate effort, the following are common tools used to help build a reputation:
- Book writing and publishing
- Public speaking
- Social media
- Networking in relevant communities
- Conducting research and publishing results
Thought leadership is a building process. It can take months and years of consistent publishing, networking, and field experience to gain an expert reputation. Although an occasional off-topic post might be acceptable to appear more human and authentic, for the most part, content activities should focus on a consistent topic, message, and/or mission in order to build a strong presence in the minds and hearts of followers.
But even if you pursue thought leadership activities, there is no guarantee you will be thought of as a thought leader. Your audience and the public are ultimately the ones who decide if you are or not.
Your audience and the public are ultimately the ones who decide if you are, or are not, a thought leader.— Heidi Thorne
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© 2018 Heidi Thorne