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What is thought leadership?

Like most buzzwords, thought leadership is an often misused and misunderstood term. But what is it really? And why do you need to consider developing and publishing thought leadership? To highlight the problem with most buzzwords, Wikipedia calls thought leadership "business jargon" and defines it as content that is recognized by others as innovative, covering trends and topics that influence an industry.

Forbes defines a Thought Leader as a person or firm that is not only recognized but also who profits from the recognition of authority.

And just recently, Daniel Rasmus provided this definition: Thought Leadership should be an entry point to a relationship. Thought leadership should intrigue, challenge, and inspire even people already familiar with a company. It should help start a relationship where none exists, and it should enhance existing relationships.

In general, Thought Leadership is simply about becoming an authority on relevant topics by delivering the answers to the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience. While it can include your unique perspective on hot topics relevant for your customers, the key is that the agenda is set by your audience. They determine what the questions are. One simply needs to answer them. So the level of authority is really determined by how well one answer those most important questions.

Based on the experience of working with professionals, their firms and other types of organizations, there is a two-part definition of what constitutes a thought leader:

Definition—Part One

A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.

Considering the title of this column, what we're talking about in this definition is "brilliance." What's essential to understand is that brilliance doesn't exist in a vacuum, and it's a total waste of time to debate whether it's authentic or not. Brilliance is a function of acclaim, created where others bestow the accolades. We now move to the second part of the definition, the commercial component:

Definition—Part Two

A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.

People are in businesses to make money. By and large, their objective whether through products, services or both is to do a top-notch job for their clients. Still, it's fair to say, they want to be well compensated to the extent possible. Being a thought leader is very much about making money, which is also evidenced in the title for this column.

Why Is Thought Leadership important?

Thought leadership is important for both Consumer (B2C) and B2B companies but it is especially important in B2B (Business-to-Business). This is because of the complexity and length of the decision-making process in B2B environments and the large number of people involved.

Quotes on Thought Leadership

"Want to strengthen your thought leadership? Crown yourself and assume the throne. Use opinion, story, credentials to build authority." - Andrea J. Lee

"Control is not leadership; management is not leadership; leadership is leadership. If you seek to lead, invest at least 50% of your time in leading yourself—your own purpose, ethics, principles, motivation, conduct. Invest at least 20% leading those with authority over you and 15% leading your peers." - Dee Hock, Founder and CEO Emeritus, Visa

"Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand." — General Colin Powell

"The leader is one who mobilizes others toward a goal shared by leaders and followers. … Leaders, followers and goals make up the three equally necessary supports for leadership." — Gary Wills in: Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders

"Successful thought leadership is about creating exceptional content that provides insight into business issues. That's what makes executive buyers choose one firm over another." - The Thought Leadership Marketing Equation

"When you begin your marketing efforts by establishing trust and demonstrating thought leadership, you create a new more effective entry point for your brand message." - Linda Nelson in: Thought leadership – sales new Trojan Horse

"Potential Thought Leadership = Genius + Passion + Attitude" - Rick Hubbard in: Thought Leadership 2.0

"Without a following, potential thought leaders are simply people with good, or maybe even brilliant ideas, but that is all; they are not thought leaders. It's like having a Facebook account with no friends in it." - Rick Hubbard in: Thought Leadership 2.0