InsightsPOSTED April 2, 2014

Why thought leadership needs a reset

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UPS Canada

Photo: Thought leadership done well.

Given the huge rise of claims to thought leadership by corporate and individual brands, one would think we are basking in a sea of clever, distinct and poignant thinking that genuinely challenges conventional approaches.

And if you sift hard enough, you’ll find diamonds in the rough in most categories.  But, these gems are getting crowded out by posers who are sullying the original principle of thought leadership.

A thought leader can refer to an individual or organization that is recognized as an authority and whose expertise is sought.

The term was first used by Joel Kurtzman in 1994, editor-in-chief of Strategy & Business Magazine, to help staff access qualified area experts.

It still serves this purpose, but has evolved into the realm of advocacy where people or firms offer new, perhaps unconventional strategies to persistent or emerging problems.

A few examples of thought leaders include

  • In the Canadian context, Stephen Lewis is a powerful thought leader on HIV and AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Google has established several legitimate thought leadership claims to transportation and mobile communications.
  • Richard Branson is a thought leader on brazen entrepreneurialism and adventure.
  • UPS (a client) has been working hard to be an advocate for diversifying Canadian exports with a focus on small business.
  • And, Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner of Toronto, is establishing herself as a forceful leader on the benefits of a walkable city.

Yet, for every hard earned claim to thought leadership (and it does take a hard and persistent effort), there is an infinite number of bogus claims.

Consider the number of individuals and brands that grab the sustainable thought leadership mantle through one-off initiatives.

Or the legions of brands and individuals that piggy back on another entity’s efforts and claim it as their own thought leadership.

Genuine thought leadership requires

  • A genuine core competency on the subject — be it through quality research and/or an existing expertise
  • An unambiguous (and courageous) point of view that addresses a problem or opportunity and offers a clear solution
  • Skin in the game through long-term direct investments of dollars and human capital
  • A level of differentiation in how the issue is addressed and tackled
  • Leadership buy-in and commitment

I have no issue with brands doing intermittent advocacy drives, research initiatives or significant sponsorship investments, but if you’re not in it for the long-term with a specific mission, it’s not thought leadership.

Ken Evans is our resident media trainer and presentation expert. Follow him on Twitter.

To help build your brand’s “immune system” through genuine thought leadership, connect with us at APEX.

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