As the late Margaret Thatcher (almost) said: “Being powerful is like being a thought leader. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”  I’ve lost track since leaving PR consultancy over 15 years ago how many times PR consultants have offered to implement ‘thought leadership’ campaigns on the comms department’s behalf. “Great idea. What support would you need from us to achieve this?” I usually ask.

A true thought leader.  Image: Flickr (Creative Commons)

Steve Jobs: A true thought leader
Image: Flickr (Creative Commons)

“Let’s agree a list of themes to start with,” is the usual response. Such an offer implies that ‘thought leadership’ can be manufactured like a boy band or an Irish theme bar. What the PR consultant really means is raising an executive’s or a product’s or the company’s profile. PR consultants are good at never knowingly underselling a concept.

I was asked this week to define ‘thought leadership’ for a project I’m involved in, so I’ve had a think and did some research. Here are my considered top ten tell tale signs for what I believe does and doesn’t constitute thought leadership.

1.    Thought leadership starts with a unique thought. Plagiarism, repetition and referencing others don’t make you a thought leader. They make you a disciple or an imitator. Thinking up incremental enhancements to another’s original thought makes you a business improvement consultant.

2.    Companies cannot be thought leaders.  Companies are inanimate. A company might employ thought leaders. Maybe the company was founded by a thought leader? The company might become a capable, competent and successful business – market-leading, even.  But not a thought leader.

3.    Thought leaders are clever and charismatic.  An aspiring thought leader without intelligence, charisma or confidence is usually viewed as an idiot, a crank or slightly unhinged. A clever and charismatic executive is just that. A thought leader?  See number one, above.

4.    Thought leaders are comfortable challenging convention.  If you haven’t taken a risk or challenged the status quo, you’re likely not a thought leader. Similarly, if you’ve got disruptive thoughts but haven’t shared them beyond your family and closest friends, I fear the likelihood of achieving enduring fame and fortune is dimmed.

5.    Thought leaders have followers.  Sorry to be the one to break this, but having lots of followers on Twitter doesn’t confer thought leadership status.

6.    TED Talk’s don’t necessarily count. While an invite to deliver a TED Talk is a big deal, it implies you’ve got a point of view, can present well and maybe have conducted new research.  It doesn’t mean you’re a thought leader, but congratulations – you have an idea worth spreading.

7.    Thought leaders are good communicators. They are usually capable of expressing their thought or vision in a simple and compelling way, without direct support from a PR consultant.

8.    Something has to change.  If nothing changes as a result of a disruptive thought, its not thought leadership. An interesting thought that doesn’t change anything is called an idea.

9.    Thought leaders are successful.  This is because people buy in – literally and emotionally – and follow the leader.  Search far and wide as you might, it’s unlikely you will ever stumble upon an unsuccessful thought leader.

10.Thought Leaders don’t need lawyers. There is no intellectual property rights protection for a thought, however good or interesting.  Only tangible things can be copyright protected.

Why does any of this matter?  Thought leadership is a concept that’s thrown about too casually today.  It raises expectations that will too often remain unfulfilled, like the career of an X-Factor winner or the lifespan of the neighbourhood bar when the fashion changes.

Maybe you think I’m being too literal but I believe that lowering the bar diminishes the achievements of a small and exclusive club of genuine visionaries like Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, John Seely-Brown and Henry Ford whose disruptive thoughts changed the world and the lives of people.

Please feel free to disagree in the comments …



Can you imagine, just for a second, the furore that would ensue should the Chinese Government decide to ban Starbucks from selling coffee in China, citing fears that the world’s largest coffee retailer could be ‘influenced’ by western governments to create a generation of caffeine-addicted Chinese?

What is Starbucks was banned?

What if Starbucks was banned in China?

In this entirely made up scenario, Starbucks, one would expect, might react with incredulity, suggesting that it has no intention of the sort.  “We are a company owned by our shareholders and we have no unnatural links with western governments,” it might say, adding: “We’re a global business and would never jeopardise our commercial success or exploit our customers.”  A tinge of exasperation might be heard in their voices.

Starbucks’ executives might point to the thousands of jobs it has created in China where it has already opened close to 1000 stores. They might refer to future investment plans to expand in the country, creating further employment, training and management development programmes for Chinese people. They might even highlight their support for local charities and good causes as the company grows.

“We’re an ethical company”, they would surely stress.  “All we want to do is to bring a lifestyle choice enjoyed by millions of people across the world to the people of China,” the executives might respond to journalists with stories of corporate conflict to file.

The Chinese Government might brief journalists that Starbucks is actually subsidised by Western Governments, citing the very loose corporation tax rules in many western jurisdictions that enable the coffee company to minimise its tax bill and maximise profits.  “Our tax arrangements are entirely legal,” Starbucks would almost certainly retort. “We pay all the taxes due under local tax laws.”

The Beijing authorities might shrug, then possibly produce a scientific paper highlighting the addictive nature of caffeine and the affects that prolonged, heavy use can have on the brain and central nervous system.  Starbucks might counter with its own independent medical research to show that caffeine, consumed in moderation, actually has health benefits. To add weight to its arguments, Starbucks might line up a western government or two to declare their support for open trade and deny any unnatural interest in the caffeinating habits of Chinese citizens.

China could respond by reminding everyone how the British brought opium to China and exchanged it for silk and spices, leaving behind million of addicts. They might highlight the more recent focus by Western tobacco manufacturers who looked East when medical advice and public opinion turned against their products in the West. “No,” Starbucks might scream.  None of this is evidence against us.  We have no special relationship with Western Governments, no ulterior motives.  We’re being scapegoated in a larger geo-political debate we’re not interested in and powerless.”

Such a ban might be characterised as a naked attempt by Beijing authorities to protect China’s domestic tea industry, under threat from the rising number of western coffee houses springing up across the country.  With its business and the livelihood of its employees and suppliers at risk, Starbucks would be well within its rights to demand to see evidence of the threat it is supposed to pose.  In the absence of any hard evidence, the Chinese Government could simply claim ‘national interest’ as a blanket and the ban could stand.

While this is an entirely fictitious scenario, the comms department at Starbucks would have our full sympathy as they fought a battle they are destined to lose; as they try to win a debate, the outcome  agreed before the debate started.  “That’s China,” people would suggest, with a shrug.

If all of this sounds a bit far-fetched, that’s exactly what’s happening to Chinese vendors of IT and communications equipment in the US market today. The US Congress in Washington is debating new rules to control federal agencies from buying information technology that has been “produced, manufactured or assembled” by companies with ties to the Chinese government (in other words, Chinese companies, but which also includes iPhones made in China) unless the FBI or a similar agency first determines the purchase would be in the national interest.

Honestly. A spin doctor couldn’t make it up.



Nations tend to play nicer with each other when the global economy is happy and everyone’s getting a fair share of the spoils. Recession, on the other hand, eats away at a nation’s jobs, cash reserves and confidence. Defences can get erected and the minds of the men behind the barricades turn to preservation and protection. This environment creates a challenge for  communication departments representing the global commercial interests on either side of the quarrel.

International trade wars - ultimately, no one really wins.

International trade wars – ultimately, no one really wins.

There’s an escalating international tit-for-tat trade battle, if not a full-blown trade war, taking shape.  In one corner is the United States representing itself and its old world superpower allies; in the other, the emerging BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China – recently joined by South Africa), fronted by China.

The latest round of awkwardness started last year with solar panels when first the US, and then the EU, complained that products manufactured in China were too cheap and cried foul, citing “price dumping”.  Cue import duties on Chinese manufactured panels to made them more “price-comparable” with domestic competitors.  China swiftly responded with a formal complaint to the World Trade Organisation over what it believes is illegal state subsidies by Italy and Greece for solar panel manufacturers in their jurisdictions.

More recently, telecoms equipment from China (and increasingly Korea) has been banned or challenged in the US over fears that it could pose a threat to the US’ national security.  The allegations were tested in a US technical laboratory and no evidence was found.  But what sane person would accept even the slightest risk – with or without evidence – of a threat to national security?

A de facto blockade was put in place.  Now the French Government, with an ailing telecoms equipment vendor on its doorstep, is said to be considering similar action.  Interest declared – I represent a global telecoms equipment vendor headquartered in China.

The macroeconomic and political environment is important to understand here.  The collapse of the global economy in 2008 inflicted near-fatal damage to the reputation of free market capitalism. A succession of Eurozone aftershocks kicked it again, and again. To add insult to injury, the US economy had to turn to China, long considered misguided for its commitment to state-led capitalism, for help and a hand out. China complied with the call for cash but, then – somewhat pettily – exercised a little smug triumphalism. They also suggested a greater say in international policy, in line with its new economic status, might be in order.

With free trade and bi-lateral trade agreements in place, truth becomes the first fatality in a trade battle. With import tariffs and market quotas open to legal challenge, more palatable justifications are called for.  If declaring the self-interst of protecting a domestic player is legally invalid, the shield of ‘national security’ – practically disprovable by either side – can be easily adopted.

In these cases, political lobbying, the traditional route to having trade restrictions discussed, revised, reduced or erased, becomes ineffective.  It’s difficult to lobby against decisions already made or investigations staged to justify already made decisions.

The impartial media are often conflicted.  Challenging opaque issues of national security could be seen as conspiratorial. In any event, straight reporting of battles, of winners and losers, are much easier stories to write and make better headlines.

For internal communicators, it’s difficult to explain to a global workforce in terms they understand or accept that the potential loss of their livelihoods is really nothing personal and that commercial organisations sometimes have to pay the price for bigger debates.

Ultimately, there are three key implications of trade wars.

Firstly, consumers are denied choice and lower costs.  In the case of the solar panel dispute, American consumers are forced to pay a higher price to reduce their heating bill or minimise their carbon footprint.  And before you suggest it, only a cynic would suggest this activity was a gift to US oil and gas companies, contributors to both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Secondly, protecting the weak seldom encourages them to understand and address the underlying causes of weakness (the banks in the US, the UK and across the Eurozone that were bailed out by taxpayers may prove this theory wrong in time but the early signs aren’t encouraging). In a global, free market economy, competition (assuming fairness and the rule of law is respected) should raise standards and reduce costs for consumers and businesses alike and businesses that invest, innovate, risk capital and operate profitably by giving customers what they want should have a reasonable expectation of success.

Finally, international trade wars are a zero sum game.  Markets blocked from other markets typically bite back.  The BRIC nations are enjoying economic growth, while the free market economies of the west are in decline.

With time, and an improving economic outlook, trade wars usually get resolved but if ever there was a time when the global market needs to support the global economy, to cooperate and remove all the barriers, that time is surely now.