The problem with thought leadership

Here’s a thought: thought leadership needs a re-brand.  

Although it may appear that almost everyone is trying to produce what is referred to as thought leadership content, the term has been devalued to such an extent that, in many instances, it simply does not merit its title. Producing content which claims to deliver value, but simply underwhelms with its repetitive, derivative ideas is not thought leadership. Nor is producing content with the sole aim of feeding the SEO (search engine optimisation) machine. Thought leadership needs to be more than that. 

When the term was first coined in the business context by Joel Kurtzman in 1994, he described it as content from someone whose ideas ‘merited attention’. He identified thought leaders as experts in their sector who delivered true insight along with fresh, creative ideas on specific industry problems and trends. These were the out-of-the-box thinkers who had something worth communicating. Yet, by 2013, Forbes gave it the title of ‘most annoying business slang’.  

Ten years later, the term ‘thought leadership’ continues to be diluted by a flood of would-be thought leaders publishing pieces of dubious quality which deliver almost nothing in the way of value. Some simply rehash other people’s ideas. Others may promise much at the outset but deliver little. 

The problem is that real thought leadership is implicitly selfless. Although we cannot deny its subtle aim may be to engender confidence in and admiration of an individual or brand – and of course that can be the motivation for publication – it nonetheless provides genuine insight and is supported by innovative ideas which are ahead of the curve, with meticulous research and in-depth personal experience of the subject being discussed. It shares that knowledge freely, without holding back, driving change, and delivering educational value.  

So, what are the alternatives?  

Opinion leadership 

Not all experts on a subject have an opinion and not everyone with an opinion is an expert. But a true expert with a strong opinion has got to be worth listening to. These are the leaders who have the authority and conviction to make a case, whose opinion is different to, or stronger than, any competing voices. This type of content needs to be well-planned and well-written, supported by authentic new data and held together with a cohesive central argument or big idea. Not everyone will agree with your opinion but if your argument is well-founded and carefully supported with evidence and research, it will deliver value by driving debate. 

Visionary leadership 

Foretelling the future can be seen as a risky strategy but if you know your world and have the ability and data to anticipate trends, identify unforeseen challenges and solutions then others will benefit from your wisdom. To communicate your vision clearly you may use storytelling or examples which bring your vision to life. A visionary leader must have indisputable credibility in the sector or specialism they are discussing and the courage and clarity to outline an alternative way of thinking. 

Authentic customer-focused leadership 

There is little point in providing content which claims to address the needs of customers or clients without first ensuring that you understand their concerns. Through research and engagement, however, you can identify the areas they may be having trouble with, then you can educate and advise, inspire, and motivate, creating a positive environment for further engagement. Consider how best to present your content. Video or short storytelling films may work well in this situation, especially if your key target market is found via social media. 

You can read more on this topic on our website: Thought Leadership, Storytelling & Narrative Advisory, Digital & Content Marketing 

If you would like to discuss how to become a thought leader, please contact [email protected].