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What Is Thought Leadership?

Heidi Thorne is an author and business speaker specializing in sales and marketing topics for coaches, consultants, and solopreneurs.

Find out what this popular business buzzword actually means!

Find out what this popular business buzzword actually means!

What Is a Thought Leader?

Thought leadership is a popular business buzzword. But, like many buzzwords, their 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, an 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—which is a preferred situation—it is not always a requirement to accomplish 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 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, businesses 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:

  • Blogging
  • Podcasting
  • 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

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2018 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 08, 2018:

Hi Larry! This thought leadership term is thrown around in business circles so much it's become a useless buzzword. But it is something we need to think about as we evaluate everything that comes at us through the news and the Internet. Glad to have shed some light on the issue.

Thanks so much for stopping by and have a great weekend!

Larry W Fish from Raleigh on March 08, 2018:

A great article, Heidi. I never thought of thought leadership before, but you have a way of giving me a different way of thinking. From now I will take note of whether a person is a thought leader, just a leader, or an influencer.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 04, 2018:

Flourish, thank you for the kind words! I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the situation. Appreciate you taking time to stop by and read. Have a great weekend!

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 03, 2018:

Your definitions and descriptions really stand out in this article so I’m glad you put them in captions. The sociopolitical environment that we face now I think will have an impact on our understanding of leadership, persuasion of the masses, thought leadership, and interpersonal influence for years to come.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 03, 2018:

Bill, I would say that you are a thought leader, especially here on HP. So that's something to think about during the ice thaw. Thanks for stopping by and have a great weekend!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 03, 2018:

Well I have no idea if I am a thought leader or not...I guess so, at times in my life....never really thought about it; never really head that phrase before; food for thought as I wait for the ice to thaw. :) Happy Weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 03, 2018:

Brian, these days it's entirely possible to become a thought leader through our very public comments and content on the Internet! I don't think many people realize the power they now have. But I think our future generations do. You've given some great examples of thought leadership by real people.

No doubt, there are thought leaders which are "thought control" leaders. I agree that educating the masses on critical thinking when evaluating news or other content is essential, especially with all the fake news and nonsense that abounds.

Thanks so much for thoughtfully adding your insights to the conversation! Have a great weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 03, 2018:

Threekeys, I agree that "leaders" can such for good or evil purposes. "Sharing" is definitely a positive perspective on thought leadership.

There's no doubt that leadership does involve some level of control. And there are places where it's necessary to avoid chaos. But leaders who are open minded, and willing to listen to reason, can lead others toward positive and cooperative outcomes. Our hope is that those in high leadership roles are of this sort.

Thanks for adding your perspective to the conversation! Have a great weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 03, 2018:

Linda, thought leadership is a thought provoking topic! :) A lot of people become thought leaders without even realizing it, especially with our public visibility on the Internet. Glad you found it interesting. Thanks for chiming in and you have a great weekend, too!

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on March 03, 2018:

So anyone who comments at a public meeting, writes a letter to the editor, blog posts an essay advocating a stance becomes a thought leader by doing so persuasively and with the authority of experience, sound reasoning, and/or solid research. Being a thought leader seems to be a possible by-product of having the gumption to express an opinion or position. The essence of democracy is that everyone is free to attempt to persuade others, that is, to be a thought leader. High school students saying why they are demonstrating for safety from gun nuts; women speaking out on why they are fed up with sexual harassment; undocumented immigrants saying why they are demonstrating to request an end to inhumane treatment -- these are a few recent examples of ordinary people becoming thought leaders.

Some professional thought leaders are propagandists, expert at persuading with lies and fallacies. Education ought to include learning how to spot their tricks.

threekeys on March 03, 2018:

For sometime everytime I hear the word Leader I feel uncomfortable or put up my defenses. There is still a part of me that resents someone thinking their way is the way. Someone else wanting to brainwash you to their way of thinking. There are about 8 billion people who have found a way the world works. I think I would warm up to another if we approached each other as "sharing" one's ideas.

Leadership is still about manipulation and control, irrespective of the title.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 02, 2018:

Your article about thought leadership has definitely given me something to think about! The nature and potential influence of a thought leader are interesting topics to consider.

I hope you have an enjoyable weekend, Heidi.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 02, 2018:

Hi Natalie! You definitely made a good point that many thought leaders are outside the public eye. It might be because they are introverted (not uncommon). But you have to wonder if they see themselves as thought leaders and agents of change. I think if they did, they would be more likely to want to gain some positive and public attention.

You also asked an interesting question about thought leaders being positive leaders. Sadly, throughout history there have been leaders and thought leaders with disastrous and harmful agendas. However, in today's parlance, it is usually defined in a positive light, even though you and I could both probably come up with a list of negative thought leaders.

Thanks so much for your insightful comments! Have a great weekend!

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on March 02, 2018:

Great article. I don't think we always give a lot of thought to how leadership is defined. We tend to think of leadership in one way which is generally someone who is somehow in the public eye whether that's in terms of an organization, politics, work environments etc. No with social media we think more in terms of people who influence opinions and perceptions but again these are usually more public figures of some sort. Paying attention to individuals who are leaders but perhaps not so publicly visible or well known is an important topic to examine. In terms of definition of concept, are thought leaders always viewed in terms of those who lead in positive ways? Thanks for the article - it made me think about leadership and influence more carefully.