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  • Mitch Blatt

Leading Thoughts on Thought Leadership

If you’ve spent time online or in conferences, some of these words and phrases might seem familiar:

“Think outside the box”

“Drinking the Kool-Aid”

“Thought leader(ship)”

What they’ve got in common, aside from being used in a business context, is that there are plenty of op-eds decrying them as meaningless jargon. It’s even to the point that Ladders, Inc writer Sara London says in her article Business jargon is actually damaging your business, “If one feels like they’re saying the right things, it can hinder the urge to truly do the right things, as evident in cultural sensations like slacktivism. It’s theorized that by using active words, it seems like problems are being solved without actually enacting any tangible change.” To use an analogy, a list of “corporatespeak” terms would be the linguistic equivalent of an article on “101 Ways to Look Busy in the Office”—you scatter a bunch of papers or something around your desk to look busy, and you liberally pepper

sentences with “synergize” this, “diversify” that, “ideate” the other thing to sound busy.

In social justice circles, there’s been a push to reclaim words used as slurs, or add new words to the “hate speech” pile. Let’s do some reclaiming and rescue “thought leader” from the “meaningless buzzwords” pile.

The first two terms are relatively easy to understand—”think outside the box” and “drinking the Kool-Aid” are workplace phrases for “use unconventional thinking to solve a problem” and “uncritically buying into an idea or company philosophy,” respectively—but what, exactly, is a “thought leader?”

The term was coined in 1994 by American economist Joel Kurtzman to mean someone who “is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.” Since then, it’s been used and misused by everyone from experts and content marketers to bloggers and influencers—CBC Radio even did a parody of a TEDx talk where Pat Kelly makes himself look like a thought leader with nothing but body language and Powerpoint slides.

While doing research for this piece, I was aggravated by the number of articles saying that “thought leader” was just nonsense corporatespeak. How do you tell the difference between an actual thought leader and a pretender who knows how to act like they know what they’re talking about?

In the modern sense, is thought leadership still what Kurtzman said it was? Is it “just” a content marketing strategy? Is it a mindset generalized for your entire business? Something else? I for one think that a good definition of a “thought leader” is “a trendsetter for public opinion on a topic or in a field, someone who helps groups of people see things from a different perspective.”

However, there’s something of a conundrum: even if people want to do thought leadership for its own sake and help push perspectives in a positive direction, we live in a society where people need money. Every business has operating costs to cover—even non-profit organizations need to keep the lights on and market to donors and sponsors.

So how do you tell who’s the “trendsetter” kind of thought leader vs the “phonies” who use thought leadership just to make a sale?

Things the “phonies” do include:

• Proclaim themselves to be thought leaders—that’s like boasting about being knighted by the Queen of England. It makes you look disingenuous and egotistical. “Thought leader” is something other people agree you are, not something you call yourself.

• They stick to non-controversial content; alternatively, the controversial content they do publish is dispassionate—audiences can tell it’s just “phoned in,” and especially these days, they value authenticity.

• Call anything their company publishes “thought leadership” even if it’s not innovative. In extreme cases, their thought leadership content is straight up plagiarized.

In contrast, the “trendsetters”:

• Don’t flaunt their thought leader status, or appoint themselves as thought leaders before others do.

• May state controversial opinions, but not just to be contrarian. If a trendsetting thought leader says something controversial, it’s because they genuinely believe it, which segues into the next point.

• They don’t just pump out content for the sake of pumping out content. They’re passionate about what they do. And readers, viewers, listeners,

etc. can tell—it’s obvious if some one’s being genuine or if they’re

just going through the motions. That passion hooks audiences in and gets them stoked to boost your message.

• Even though they need to generate revenue to keep their business running, they don’t publish thought leadership content just for the sake of profit. Making money or landing a sale is just a bonus.

According to’s article What Exactly Is Thought Leadership?, “Thought leadership is [...] a way to help your brand stand out in a crowded market. If there are dozens of companies like yours, but yours is the only one with a reputed expert at the helm, you'll stand a much better chance of winning a larger share of

customers than your competitors.” You can’t stand out if everyone else is trying to stand out in the same way. Fluxe Digital Marketing’s article “Publishing Content Doesn’t Make You a Thought Leader (Here’s What Does)” says, “Thought leadership goes well beyond marketing. In fact, if you’re looking to thought leadership to make a quick sale, you’re in the wrong place.” Effective thought leaders don’t just promote themselves, they offer audiences useful ideas they can apply to their own lives. Thought leadership content provides value, but not always solutions, and that’s okay. Quality’s more important than quantity.

So there you have it. Thought leadership isn’t just a buzzword. It’s not just about publishing any sort of dispassionate content, it’s a way to change perspectives in society. To return to the earlier question, how do you tell the difference between an actual thought leader and a pretender who knows how to act like they know what they’re talking about? Who’s credible, and who isn’t? If you discover a new thought leader, here’s what you can do: look to see what company or organization they represent, and ask what’s in it for them if you follow their ideas? Are they just trying to push their brand, or are they sharing ideas that offer you a new perspective?

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