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Let’s Call “Thought Leadership” What it Really Is: Leadership

Josh Cobden

I’m not sure exactly when the term “thought leadership” came about, but I do recall the CEO of a company we were pitching interrupting our well-rehearsed presentation to say “Just what the hell is thought leadership, anyway?” She was right to ask because the term is used and defined loosely.  At its best, thought leadership is sustained over time, effectively uses different communications channels, resonates with audiences and can be shown to advance an organization’s aims. At its worst, it’s impulsive, short-term, overly commercial and a waste of money.

Let’s start by deconstructing the term:

A “thought” is a belief, idea or opinion.

“Leadership” is the ability to motivate people towards…you guessed it…a belief, idea or opinion.

Without leadership, you have no thought leadership. And since we all have thoughts, we’d do best to focus on the leadership part.

Let’s also agree that thought leadership is not a tactic or an output.  You don’t “do” thought leadership.  You can publish white papers, make speeches, pump out press releases and broadcast webcasts and podcasts but if they don’t reflect a leadership position, they are only outputs.  Put another way, thought leadership is not an output, it’s an outcome.

So, instead of telling yourself (or others) you want to be thought leader, ask these better questions:

  1. On what topic do you want to lead, and why? Your topic should have some connection to what you sell so that if you’re successful in emerging as a leader on the topic, people will view you, your company, and your brand as a trusted authority. But make sure it adds value beyond just talking about what you sell, otherwise, it’s a commercial.  For example, Bell Let’s Talk is an impressive example of leading the discussion around an important societal issue (mental health) where a solution (communication) is linked to Bell’s main business.
  2. Who do you want to take notice, and will it bring value? The best thought leadership programs are relevant to more than one audience. For example, a healthcare organization may create an educational campaign focused on a condition that is helpful to patients, their family members, the healthcare community, insurance companies and even government policymakers.  Yes, they may be a company that also markets a treatment or a service.  But they are also adding value to the broader discussion and understanding of the disease.
  3. What do you have to say about this topic, and is it unique? If you have nothing new to say compared to others, you likely won’t achieve leadership (unless you can say it better).  We’ve always heard that learning a musical instrument early in life can create enjoyment and value, but the Royal Conservatory of Canada’s research on how music education helps children as their brains develop is unique, relevant to anyone with children and directly connected to the product they sell (music lessons and accreditation).
  4. How will you communicate? Go back to point #2 (audiences). Think about where and how each audience is likely to consume information and focus on approaches that hit those channels.  For example, an anti-virus software company might post a downloadable white paper on LinkedIn for IT procurement professionals, create a how-to video for consumers on YouTube, and develop an employee education training program for HR professionals.  Each appeals to a potential buyer or purchase influencer by adding value and creating authority.
  5. How will you benchmark, measure and refine efforts? The only way to know if your hard work is paying off is to create opportunities to measure impact.  Exposure metrics like media impressions, clicks to site, and downloads can inform you on how widely your message is being received; however, that is just another set of outputs and not the outcome you are trying to create.  Look to the frequency you’re approached as an expert in the field versus pitching yourself as the expert.   Identify who attends your presentations, shares your messaging or amplifies your ideas.  Track how closely your brand is associated with the topic you want to lead.  Your specific approach should be tailored to both the tactics you employ and the audience you are reaching out towards.
  6. Are you prepared to sustain your effort? In 1959, Volvo invented the three-point seatbelt and then waived its patent rights so more auto companies would use it. Over a million lives have been saved. Sixty-one years later, Volvo’s still at it with numerous safety initiatives, such as “Stop, Look and Wave“where the company’s employees visit schools to help children understand how to act safely in traffic. A long-term commitment like this not only pays dividends but also entrenches a thought leadership position and keeps competitors out.

One of my favorite thought leadership campaigns is IBM’s global Smarter Planet program, which sought to create and foster a global discussion about “the promise of a smarter planet and a new strategic agenda for progress and growth.” In doing so, IBM repositioned itself from being a company that made computers a catalyst for economic growth, sustainable development, and societal progress.  The Smarter Planet program was launched in 2008 and grew and flourished for six years before evolving into new permutations, such as Outthink.  You can read the historical account of the program and watch some of its impacts here.

What’s your favorite example of thought leadership, and why?