‘I’m Spartacus!’ ‘No — I’m Spartacus!’
Why we can’t all be Thought Leaders.
I cannot deny that I am a frequent user of the term ‘Thought Leader’ more often than not when fighting for its honour and integrity.
But that doesn’t temper by far my frustration at the seemingly relentless commoditisation of a skill only some can rightfully lay claim to.
In the game of marketing buzzword bingo, played in boardrooms and marketing meetings across the globe, I suspect that the term ‘Thought Leadership’ will sit atop the rankings, if my recent experience is anything to go by. And that doesn’t mean that everyone is actually achieving Thought Leadership — it simply shows that everyone wants to or thinks they do already.
Have we forgotten what thought leadership means?
Before I explore what I think about the term, let’s look at where it came from:
A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. 
The term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz Allen Hamilton magazine Strategy & Business, and used to designate interview subjects for that magazine who had business ideas which merited attention. 
 Kurtzman, J. (2010) Common Purpose: How Great Leaders Get Organisations to Achieve the Extraordinary,
So, the key words here?
Authority. Specialized field. Expertise. Sought.
If these attributes define the thought leader, then surely we cannot all fulfil the criteria. An individual or influencer, a business, or someone writing on behalf of an organisation or business, needs to adequately demonstrate each of these qualities before claiming to be a member of the ‘TL Club’.
So how is it that everyone over the age of 18 who currently has a desk-job, and many more besides who simply move amongst us in the ethereal world of social and digital and printed media portray themselves as leaders of thought?
Because they all can’t be, can they?
I can’t claim to be a thought leader, at least not until I am convinced by others that I am. And I am happy with that.
My focus here is those that falsely issue sales pitches under the banner ‘Another Thought Leading piece from Acme Ducting Inc., that no business can afford to ignore!’ Or ‘We did this over the last 6 months. It’s another example of great thought leadership…’
Er…if it focuses primarily on what happened in the past, with little or no reference to how these activities or experiences will benefit others in the future, how can it be leading?
These people are not Spartacus
That’s not thought leadership. In fact, those that rebrand their organisations’ past 3 years’ case studies — with a few testimonials thrown in to demonstrate peer or third party endorsement — as thought leadership pieces are either totally misguided, totally immersed in their perceptions of their firms impact on the wider world economy or just unable to grasp the true meaning of the phrase.
You are a candidate Thought Leader if….
My view is that to qualify for inclusion on the pedestal of true Thought Leadershipone should fulfil the following criteria: So here goes.
1 You spend more time looking forward than back
2 You can form an opinion of your own, based upon sector knowledge, content curation and you can make your opinion relevant to your customers
3 You are willing and eager to share your undistilled genius to the benefit of all.
But let’s face it, most will share it first with customers and leads and prospects. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but to reach the exalted status of Thought Leader I believe one has to lead the entire population, not just your mates
4 You can demonstrate an encyclopaedic knowledge of your own products and services and the benefitsthey offer and a similar appreciation of the sectors you serve
The objective here is to show that you know your customers’ markets and industry so well you can see the issues they are going to face in the next 2, 3 or 5 years and you can offer advice to help them navigate these issues
5 You understand what a ‘long game’ is; and you can engage your own stakeholders and persuade them that the long game is the right game
6 You understand — and can persuade others in your business to understand — that forcing out puff and sales pitch and listing your product features through every social media pore within your reach is not Thought Leadership
7 You don’t try and force your expertise down people’s throats like they were Perigord geese; you win them over — you engage, persuade, qualify and provide evidence for your statements and claims
8 You are adult enough to allow audiences to form their own conclusions, and if so desired, take the first step towards resolving issues themselves. BUT…
9 You are willing to hold out an olive branch of trusted support and advice when they ask for it.
10 Er….that’s it for now.
Now do the work.
To gather a legion of Spartacus — to create a following for your thoughts through having original ideas and propositions in the first place — isn’t going to happen overnight. It will take some work.
I would like the concept of Thought Leadership to be revered; I want the faux leaders to stop; I want people and organisations to recognise that true Thought Leadership is imbued with original thinking, a forward-looking focus, a desire to help people make a choice over whether they ask for help now or later, and to give them appropriate advice for how to overcome likely issues in the future.
Let me know your opinion: in writing the piece above, am I a Thought Leader? Doubt it; more like thought ranter. But if I have helped you, let me know.
I tweet as Jonathan Henley