What Is Thought Leadership?

By Craig Badings
February 13th, 2013


The term “thought leadership” gets batted around a lot these days, but where did it come from and what does it mean? Liz Alexander and Craig Badings shed some light in this excerpt from their new book.

In the late 1990s, editor Joel Kurtzman came up with a collective noun for the cutting edge thinkers who were contributing insights to a series of interviews appearing in Booz Allen Hamilton’s Strategy + Business.Kurtzman called these people “thought leaders.”

Among “the world’s most innovative and distinguished executives, authors, and academicians” included in Kurtzman’s book, Thought Leaders: Insights on the Future of Business,were Warren Bennis, John T. Chambers, Charles Handy, Minoru Makihara and C.K. Prahalad.

Since then the concept of “thought leadership” has broadened. Many consultants began adopting the term, believing it was synonymous with calling themselves trusted advisors, subject matter experts or even futurists. But “thought leader” is not a position you choose to adopt, it is bestowed on you by others.

Thought leaders advance the marketplace of ideas by positing actionable, commercially relevant, research-backed, new points of view. They engage in “blue ocean strategy” thinking on behalf of themselves and their clients, as opposed to simply churning out product-focused, brand-centric white papers or curated content that shares or mimics others’ ideas.

While individual thought leaders are in plentiful supply, organizations continue to struggle to establish their thought leadership. In today’s uncertain, ever-changing environment, we need to listen more, understand better, and re-energize our relationships with increasingly discerning, demanding and skeptical customers and clients.

This means that you need to differentiate your organization with compelling points of view that are intriguing, innovative, inspiring – and wholly relevant to your audience.

We’re not talking about PR, advertising or product marketing here. Many organizations are squandering time, money and effort on thought leadership initiatives that do not move the needle in terms of establishing a differentiated brand identity, deep trust and a loyal following.

Truly powerful thought leadership campaigns are embedded into the culture of the organization; they’re not simply communication “add-ons.” The most effective thought leadership initiatives empower all employees by inspiring and supporting them to become campaign ambassadors.

They also contribute a depth of insight into internal and external conversations that your competitors can only dream of achieving.

Here are seven of the “140 tweets” that appear in the book. Each tweet is designed to lead to an effective and robust thought leadership platform:

#1: What is your organization’s definition of thought leadership? How does that differ from being trusted advisors or subject matter experts?

#8: A hallmark of true thought leadership is the confidence to take the route that 99.9 percent of industry experts don’t even see. Will you?

#31: Thought leaders imagine a desired outcome then ask what has to happen to achieve it. They play “what if?” backwards. Do you?

#85: Thought leaders ask “why?” a lot more than “what?” or “how?” Are you asking the right questions at the start?

#101: The creators of your thought leadership aren’t necessarily the right ones to communicate it. How will you handle this?

#137: How has your thought leadership campaign gone so far? What has it done for your brand? What measures support the anecdotal evidence?

#140: Thought leaders are brave; explore areas others don’t, raise questions others won’t, and provide insights others can’t.

This excerpt, adapted for Sparksheet, is from #Thought Leadership Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign by Liz Alexander and Craig Badings.

About the Authors

  • craig-badings profile pic
    Craig Badings
  • Craig Badings is the co-founder of Leading Thought. He is also a director at Sydney-based, Cannings Corporate Communications. He is the co-author of “#Thought Leadership Tweet 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign” and “Brand Stand: Seven Steps to Thought Leadership”.

  • liz-alexander profile pic
    Liz Alexander
  • Liz Alexander, PhD, helps to leverage an individual, team, or organization’s thought leadership, using the book development process as a catalyst. She is the author of 14 non-fiction books with a global reach of close to a million readers in 20 countries. She consults and speaks in the United States and India and developed and teaches the Strategic Communication Certificate Program for The University of Texas at Austin’s Professional Development Center.