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 …