Some people consider thought leadership to be a new term. It’s not. Its roots can be traced back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th-century American philosopher and essayist. The term was applied to social-reformer Henry Ward Beecher, the American minister and Congregationalist who was known for his support of the abolition of slavery (as well as his adultery trial!).
However, it is in the Information Age that thought leadership is coming of age. With the ability to spread knowledge at our fingertips, thought leaders are emerging. It’s because of the quantity of information available, that people are looking to distinguish themselves through a depth of critical and analytical thinking.
If the first thoughts we have about other individuals is: “Why should I listen to you?” or “Have you got enough credibility to warrant my time?”, you can see why thought leadership matters. Trust is an essential ingredient of any thought leadership strategy. We form meaningful bonds and social attachments through developing trust. These bonds are now linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone whose powerful effects are being studied by neuroscientists and neuropsychologists.
But not everyone will get thought leadership immediately. If you want to know the questions people ask about it, go to a brilliant online tool called www.answerthepublic.com. Type in thought leadership and you will be shown a list of common questions people ask about the term thought leadership. Questions such as:
According to the Oxford English Dictionary: “A thought leader is an individual or a firm that is recognised as an authority in a specialised field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.”
There are a number of different attributes to this definition, which we will break down here.
Authority: to be an authority in a field, you need to demonstrate knowledge and credibility. Is your authority gained through experience? Industry status? Research?
Specialised field: You cannot be a thought leader in everything. Leave that up to the philosophers. It is through identifying a specialist field that you can succeed. So rather than the goal of being an authority on ‘leadership’, which is rather broad, select your specialism as an authority on ‘leaders who self-sabotage’. You can talk about all the traits of leadership, but your area of specialism is through those who self-sabotage their own success.
Expertise: How are you going to demonstrate your expertise? This is where people who try to aim for thought leadership fail. They don’t put enough thought into demonstrating their expertise or building it up. If you’re a specialist in the area of leaders who self-sabotage their own success, how can you prove it? Do you have a number of case studies or stories of people you’ve helped? Have you conducted research on the number of people who self-sabotage? Is it primary research or secondary research?
A thought leadership strategy delivers rewards. Russ Alan Prince and Bruce Rogers, authors of ‘Profitable Business’, say that the second part of the definition of a thought leader is “an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognised as such.”
A thought leadership strategy is not a quick fix. When clients ask us, this is how we describe a thought leadership strategy. The below story is taken from the head of communications for a well-known politician.
You are standing on the banks of a river. It’s not shallow enough to cross. But you really want to get to the other side. You start to throw stones into the river. And gradually they build up.
If you move or change position, you will have to start over again throwing stones into a different part of the riverbed.
Instead, stand still. Continue to throw stones. Add some larger rocks. Even use fallen trees. Put them into the same place in that river, you will form a bridge to cross over.
Thought leadership is choosing your position on that riverbank. What we can often call a platform (using marketing terminology). And it is about reinforcing your position. Constantly.
Don’t get confused thinking this is saying the same thing over and over again. It’s not a boring reiteration. That would be dull. It is about creatively using what’s to hand – all those stones, pebbles, rocks, fallen trees. Each of them is a different object, but each has the same purpose. To help you get to the other side.
And yes, it does take a while. Authority and credibility are not easily earned. You have to demonstrate your knowledge. Your market needs to trust you as a credible source of information. You need to add to the conversation. You need to share and be present.
Thought leadership does matter. And in a world where people are running up and down that riverbank, trying to make the biggest splash possible for the least amount of effort, consistency counts. And taking up a position, building your bridge and reinforcing it is powerful.Back to news