The Circular Argument of Thought Leadership


I’ll admit I have had my doubts on the trendiness of thought leadership. There’s such a vast amount of content marketing and content marketers claiming the term that I doubted it actually even existed. Not every thought can be a leading thought and not everyone who thinks can inspire actions of others. Too many thought leaders are simply entertainers with large audiences, but no influence at all.

However, I recently came across this useful discussion of what a thought leader might actually do:

Thought leaders advance the marketplace of ideas by positing actionable, commercially relevant, research-backed, new points of view. They engage in “blue ocean strategy” thinking on behalf of themselves and their clients, as opposed to simply churning out product-focused, brand-centric white papers or curated content that shares or mimics others’ ideas.
Craig Badings and Liz Alexander

I like this definition as a test of thought leadership.  It is specific, resonates with value and because most of what I see purporting to be thought leadership fails this high bar. The five elements of the test are elements of value in the quality of the ideas that many self-proclaimed thought leaders fail to deliver:

  • Actionable: Ideas are great and can be entertaining but actions get results. Actions are where the real work is. For an idea to be actionable you actually have to have taken some effort to have put it into action. Preaching is fine but walking the talk is more persuasive.
  • Commercially Relevant: Dreams are plentiful. Utopias are delightful thought experiments. Most people are looking for something that helps them in a way that delivers actual value to their business or life. If you are trying to make a living from ‘thought leadership’ start with this.
  • Research-backed: Evidence is in short supply in the thought leadership industry. Reverse engineering case studies of popular companies to fit a hypothesis is not research. On brand messages and marketing is not thought leadership.
  • New: Oddly, your ability to say what everyone else has already said is not that valuable. A thought leader is not a mimic. They must have something novel to say or why say it. This is particularly the case when in repeating an idea you simplify or remove an idea from its context, evidence or effectiveness.
  • Point of View: Surprisingly, many self-proclaimed thought leaders don’t actually take a position on anything. They are so busy expressing the common platitudes and not offending anyone that they express every view of an issue. Taking a point of view matters because it is how you are proved right or wrong.

Importantly, there’s not a single element of that definition that depends on the size of your audience, your social media following or the blurbs on the jacket of your book. Thought leadership is about what you do, not who is watching.

Also, when I consider that definition, I come to the view that the few ‘thought leaders’ who might satisfy that definition are the rare, effective and innovative consultants, research analysts and academics who are able to capture new insights from their practical work with a variety of clients and distill that experience and insight into new plans of action. Each of those roles can meet the criteria but each work in different ways to do so.  Thought leadership in that context isn’t one thing and is better described by each of those other terms. So I guess we didn’t need the term thought leader after all.

If thought leadership is just about a status, then we don’t need the term. Thought leadership has thought led itself out of business.  This aligns itself to a broader trend the world needs a lot less focus on status and talk and a lot more focus on value in action.

3 thoughts on “The Circular Argument of Thought Leadership

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