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What is thought leadership?

As a thought leadership consulting firm, the one question that always comes up, with varying degrees of irony, is: “What is ‘thought leadership?’”

So glad you asked. Thought leadership has come a long way since it was principally the domain of consulting firms eager to deepen their relationships with clients. The practice has matured and we’ve advanced our understanding of what thought leadership means. Here’s how we define it:

Thought leadership is the practice of generating novel, evidence-based ideas on issues that are intertwined with an organization’s brand. It reflects an awareness of how those issues affect the broader environment in which the business operates, and seeks to enable key stakeholders to improve their own practices.

Have a listen to my interview on the Branch Out podcast if you’d like to hear more. I talk about four different kinds of objectives for thought leadership and how important your workforce is, both as sources of knowledge for thought leadership and as ambassadors of your brand. They’re too often ignored, but if you can activate them, you can elevate your thought leadership.

One thing I don’t talk about are the implications of that definition, notably on what thought leadership isn’t:

  • Pushing out content marketing. With the advent of content marketing, we’re seeing a lot more interest in publishing content online. That’s all well and good. But a powerful thought leadership engine, with novel research and an understanding of key issues, should sit behind content marketing and plug into other objectives in addition to marketing. They’re complementary practices, not synonymous ones.
  • Becoming a thought leader. There is a ream of books available on Amazon about how individuals can become a “thought leader.” Again, that’s all well and good, but a thought leadership program is a tool for organizations, not individuals. In most cases, pushing thought leadership out through your C-suite is more effective than thought-leader executives pulling your organization in their wake.
  • About you. Great thought leadership ultimately helps a stakeholder, your audience, improve in some way. It’s not about how clever you are; it’s about how others can learn from you. So make thought leadership about your audience, not about you. And listen to what they say in response.


In the spirit of listening, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we view thought leadership. Feel free to comment or drop me a note.

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