Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Who or what is a thought leader?

This is the first in a series of posts about thought leadership.  I started by thinking about the "what" of thought leadership. It's a concept - what does it mean?

Wikipedia suggests that

"The term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz Allen Hamilton magazine, Strategy & Business. "Thought leader" was used to designate interview subjects for that magazine who had business ideas that merited attention."

Forbes has an excellent blogpost on the topic and helpfully distinguish between what a thought leader is, and isn't. They have parts to the definition of a thought leader:

“Definition—Part One
A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.”

To me, this suggests a thought leader is someone who is recognised as such by their followers. Obvious when you think about it.

“Definition—Part Two
A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.

Ouch, this wasn’t quite so obvious, but it makes sense. Behind every thought leader is an intention, a purpose and a bias.

Leadertoday.org suggests that 

"Thought leaders are people who have an influence on how people think about an issue or situation. Through their development of models, theories or ideas, they end up with a following that stems largely from the apparent truth and/or usefulness of their ideas."

That makes sense and I like the bit about influence, and specifically that this influence is balanced with “truth” and usefulness of ideas. Though I suspect truth and usefulness are dependent on a point of view which means some people will not agree with a thought leader’s ideas. So a thought leader can be a leader for some and a non-leader for others; it all depends on the followership’s point of view.

Leadersdirect  have a good description of what a thought leader is. They mention

“Kouzes and Posner base their view of leadership on the metaphor of a journey. Their leaders sell the tickets for the journey AND help followers reach the destination. By contrast, thought leadership merely sells the tickets for the journey, leaving it to others to get to the destination on their own or with the help of managers, coaches, facilitators and catalysts.

I like the way this separates thought leadership from organisational leadership, though I do wonder whether “regular” leaders can also be thought leaders, and vice versa.  I also wonder how many “tickets” are sold to journeys that are never taken.

The next quote from Leadersdirect I really like as it democratises thought leadership. You don’t have to be in a specific position to be a thought leader. It is about “distributed thought leadership”.
"Whenever you advocate a new idea to your colleagues or boss, you show thought leadership. It isn't necessary to have inspirational influencing skills, which is necessary for senior executives because they need to win over the entire organization and beat off their internal competitors for top jobs. Also, to initiate organization-wide change, it helps to be inspirational. But a thought leader can focus on smaller scale changes - ideas for a new product or changes to an existing one. Thought leaders can persuade others using logic, evidence or an actual demonstration of a prototype to win support."

In summary, a thought leader is:
  • anyone who chooses to influence on a specific topic
  • who doesn't have the responsibility to implement the ideas
  • who is recognised by others as having influence on a specific topic
  • who has something to gain from hereir influence

Do you agree? Anything to add?

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