How modern thought leadership became a ‘thing’ (and what is a thought leader anyway?)

29 September 2021 | 5 min read | News
Clearly Team

If you have the inclination to do so, head over to LinkedIn and enter ‘thought leader’ into the search bar. At time of writing, 1.6 million numpties have these two words somewhere in their job title – the equivalent to the combined populations of Liverpool and Sheffield.

This is a huge number of self-aggranding wannabies who believe themselves to be the proverbial dogs. But who can claim to be a thought leader? Is this a term that is acceptable for self-attribution, or should it be bestowed upon by others? And where does the term ‘thought leader’ come from in the first place?

The earliest definition dates back to 1994, when Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief at Strategy+Business magazine (published by PwC and very much recommended by this author), said in an article:

“A thought leader is recognised by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate.

“They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights” to report at more frequent intervals.

It took a further decade before the concept of being a ‘thought leader’ gained any traction, and it depended on two key events: first was the development of the internet, and second was the financial crisis of 2008.

As the so-called credit crunch evolved into what would then become the worst economic downturn in a generation, today’s pre-eminent vehicle for thought leadership content, LinkedIn, was playing catch up with Plaxo (remember this?) in its bid to become the foremost social network for professionals.

At the same time, Google was starting to eclipse Yahoo! as the search engine of choice and advances in search engine optimisation (SEO) made content much more easily discoverable.

This in turn spurred self-publishing platforms such as TypePad who hitherto had largely been the reserve techies, journalists and other early adopters – the self-proclaimed ‘bloggerati.’ This author was one such proponent and adopter of this ‘new media’ format in the early- to mid-2000s.

By 2012, the green shoots of recovery not only signalled a return to growth for the economy, but they also gave rise to the likes of Medium and revamped versions of WordPress and Wix.

“Is ‘thought leader’ an acceptable form of self-attribution, or should it be bestowed upon by others?”

These user-friendly platforms brought the concept of blogging to the masses and the zeitgeist it spawned saw swathes of people develop a ‘voice’ which they wanted to be heard.

Precipitated by consumer demand for greater corporate accountability and transparency in the wake of the banking collapse, coupled with rapid advances in technology that took place during the last recession, thought leadership has become a major component of the wider marketing mix in recent years.

“Thought leadership, it is about building on the thinking in your area of expertise, and creating content that provides context, relevance, meaning and value to your audience.”

Indeed, the proliferation of the media landscape has facilitated a veritable nirvana for getting one’s voice heard and face seen.

It has moved us from a finite choice of universally accessible information sources such as the radio (1920s) and television (1940s), to an infinite media era that is characterised by the internet (1990s) and social media (2000s). Our choice is plentiful, the opportunities for those with a ‘voice’ and aspirations to be held up as so-called ‘thought leaders’, are vast.

The concept of thought leadership, however, isn’t anything new.

Indeed, the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), is quoted as saying: “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”

In the context of thought leadership, it is about building on the thinking in your area of expertise, and creating content (articles, videos, podcasts… the list goes on) that provides context, relevance, meaning and value to your audience.

What thought leadership is not about is creating content by putting pen to paper, or whatever the digital equivalent of that may be. Rather, it is about recognising the pain points, challenges, needs and wants of your target audience and generating a response that provides a semblance of a solution or enhanced understanding of whatever ‘it’ is.

In doing so, thought leadership facilitates a greater connection – engagement – between the author of the content (both the individual and the brand they represent) and the end-consumer of said content. It is for content providers to ‘get’ what consumers will demand in the post-pandemic era, and ensure they fulfil those needs.

But in the world of thought leadership, he or she who shouts loudest and most often is not necessarily the one who we listen to. And we set out to prove this with our research involving over 500 CEOs. MDs, and senior executives.