Apparently we can blame a bloke called Joel Kurtzman for coming up with the phrase “thought leader” in the 1990s.
A lot of business folk quite liked the idea – especially a few lofty types on company boards who raise it from time to time in strategy meetings. Oh dear, strategy, there’s another word that sends a shiver down my spine. (Another time John, another time…)
I have to confess that I probably would have punched poor ol’ Joel in the nose if I’d come across him a few years ago. As the designated corporate affairs pointy-head I was assigned the task of “making my company a thought leader.” It would come up just about every year around “planning time” … another shudder. It took me four years to work out what the problem was: A revelation that came in a flash of light, accompanied by angelic voices and ending with the clashing of cymbals: To be a thought leader you’ve got to have, wait for it … thoughts!
A statement of the bleedin’ obvious? Well, I’m afraid it is a truth that often gets missed by the high fliers in the boardroom who issue these decrees. I rather suspect that companies or individuals that TRY to be thought leaders have rather missed the point. You either have thoughts or you don’t. Please don’t misunderstand me – I have nothing against thought leadership per se. It’s just that the answer does not lie in the company’s corporate affairs or public relations department.
On Wikipedia they define a thought leader as an entity recognised for having innovative ideas. Innovation – now there’s another buzzword that dominates the vision and values statements of just about every company I know.
My point is simply this: Thought leadership is not a communications function – it has to come from the core of the business and is driven by the type of people who work in your company, the kind of culture you create and your willingness to try and to fail. And, funnily enough, leadership means being willing to put yourself out there, putting your ideas on the line and occasionally copping a bit of flak along the way because thought leaders are often challenging the status quo. So, next time someone in your company decrees you want to become a thought leader tell them from me: take a long, deep breath and think it through. Now there’s a thought!