Thought leadership? It’s a no brainer

Thursday, 28 August 2014, 11:17 | Category : General
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Ezri CarlebachThis week on the PRN blog we are pleased to welcome Ezri Carlebach, a senior associate with the PR Network and visiting lecturer at the University of Greenwich, who wonders if it’s possible to be a thought leadership thought leader…

Use of the term ‘thought leadership’ has gained considerable momentum in the last fifteen or twenty years, but as Laurie Young points out in his book Thought Leadership: Prompting businesses to think and learn there is no single, widely-accepted definition, nor has there been much serious research into who does it or how they do it. In a useful YouTube author video Young describes thought leadership as “the creation and communication of ideas for business advantage.” Thought leadership is increasingly a part of the broader corporate communications mix, although many of the best-known thought leadership examples come from political or academic circles. There are two main prompts for the concept. First, the desire to demonstrate expertise, and to seek value from the status or power that being an expert can bring; and second, to generate innovation in processes, policies, products, or services. However, whether the motive for either desire is solely or even mainly commercial is debatable.

thethinker I think, therefore I am a leader

Thought Leadership happens in four main spheres. In the political world it has often been referred to as ‘vision’ (famously derided by George Bush Snr, when urged to work on ideas for his presidency, as ‘the vision thing’). In an article entitled What Makes a Thought Leader contributor Shel Israel suggests John F. Kennedy as an exemplar of political thought leadership, citing his vision of landing men on the moon. In the corporate world there are two strands of thought leadership. At a more prosaic level, a thought leader in a company is someone who is really ‘across the issues’ or ‘on top of the brief’ (the positional references in these metaphors could raise some interesting questions), and it can occur throughout an organisation. The second strand is closer to Young’s notion of the generation of ideas to create competitive or market advantage, and is likely to take place mostly in the C-suite. Steve Jobs was frequently named a top business thought leader, as explored in this piece by PR agency Stern + Associates, who have made the development of thought leadership their main proposition to clients. I would also argue that the startup world is more or less entirely based on the creation and communication of new ideas. Interestingly, startups are increasingly based on social rather than purely commercial ideas.


 The thought is the message

The academic world may be inclined to dismiss thought leadership as a crude appropriation of its age-old core business of serious thinking. However, even within academia the ability to transcend the well-trod intellectual path marks someone out as a leader. Einstein springs to mind, obviously, although maybe ‘genius’ and ‘thought leader’ aren’t synonymous. For me, one of the greatest academic thought leaders was Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, for reasons too complex (and fascinating) to get into here. And then there are the business schools – the point where, arguably, the corporate and academic worlds most closely overlap. A number of them have made a play for owning thought leadership, with one US organisation already devoted to thought leadership as a methodology for development a commercial platform in its own right. Many people are building thought leadership elements into public relations strategies, and there are good reasons for doing so. But success depends on two aspects. First, and by far most important, is the quality of the ideas being created. I have some recommendations on this, which we can return to in a future post. Second, you need a strategy for getting your ideas out there. Here you could do a lot worse than take some lessons from Mitchell Levy. Check out his map and video here. And then do come back and share your thoughts. Are you a thought leader? Are you working for or with someone who is an aspiring thought leader? Or have you seen some great examples? We’d love to hear from you.

The PR Network runs communications workshops for aspiring thought leaders. Contact if you or your organisation wants to find out more.

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