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What Is Thought Leadership?

A colleague asked me today how I define thought leadership. Here is where I landed.

Thought leadership is the perceived advantage a company achieves in the minds of its stakeholders in relation to a theme or topic that is of central importance to its business. Thought leadership is a perishable perceptual grant by your stakeholders.

Within this is an inherent paradox – what is important to your business might not be important to your target audience (at least at first). One of the critical roles of a communicator or marketer is to make the case for the thought.

Most importantly, thought leadership is a dimension of the brand. For instance, Dell is seen as a thought leader in social media having embraced social technologies and practices. Virgin is seen as a thought leader in customer service innovation. Air New Zealand as a thought leader in transforming the travel experience.

In many cases, it is the individual that is seen as a thought-leader, not the enterprise. Lionel at Dell. Richard Branson at Virgin. Rob Fyfe at Air New Zealand. The anonymity of the Enterprise lacks the personality and trust dimension so critical to being a thought leader. This is why so many of the thought leaders we think of are the management gurus like Gary Hamel.

But too often thought leadership is seen purely as a verb – it’s something we do rather than earn through “the whole” of our actions or relationships. Through that whole we earn the right to practice thought leadership. Often it is predicated not on eloquent writing or speaking (although that helps) but rather on customer experience.

So, you can practice thought leadership – say through speaking, blogging, writing, but that does not make you a thought leader. Not matter how good you are, true thought leadership can only be achieved holistically.

Importantly, thought leadership can only be granted by those you seek to do business with – to build relationships with. It is something they own and grant to you for so long as you are such to them.

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