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Customer experience strategy and innovation expert Woody Bendle is back, ranting up about thought leadership, what it means, and whether or not you can be a self-appointed thought leader. I’ve had a beef with the term for long time. That beef grew when a co-worker from the corporate days routed a strategy document he said was shaped by a number of thought leaders in the company. This was the first I and a really sharp co-worker had heard or seen of it. Get the picture? After that, the inside joke between us was whatever the hurdle was to be a thought leader, we were apparently FAR from it. But who knows, if you can meet Woody’s criteria, you just might be thought leader! Here’s Woody:

You Just Might be a Thought Leader by Woody Bendle

I look forward to this time every year when the Nobel prizes are awarded!  How exciting!

Since 1901 (with the exception of three years during WWII), the global community has celebrated the achievements of individuals making the most substantial contributions towards the benefit of mankind in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, World Peace, and (since 1969) Economics.

The list of Nobel Laureates, in my opinion, is the quintessential who’s who list of Thought Leaders.  Here are a few you might recognize:

  • Marie Curie – Chemistry – 1911
  • Albert Einstein – Physics – 1921
  • T.S. Elliot – Literature – 1948
  • Max Theiler – Medicine – 1951
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. – Peace – 1964
  • Milton Friedman – Economics – 1976

Ranting-Woody-Bendle2Quite a list of thought leaders, wouldn’t you agree?

So you say you want to be a thought leader?

They say timing is everything, and the timing of this year’s Nobel prizes is really interesting in that I recently participated with entrepreneurs and innovators in a moderated discussion on Branding and Public Relations for startup businesses.  Within the first few minutes, the group’s conversation turned to the importance of being recognized as a “thought leader”’  For 45 minutes, the group discussed thought leadership and what they were doing (or thought others could be doing) to be seen as Thought Leaders.

I kept thinking there sure was a lot of misunderstanding about thought leadership. As far as I was concerned, most of what the group was talking about had little, if anything, to do with true thought leadership. What I took away from the group’s discussion, was thought leadership essentially boils down to three things:

  1. Putting out a lot of content that positions oneself (or one’s organization) as being a thought leader
  2. Having a lot of followers sharing or “liking” your content
  3. Getting a reputable publication do an article on you (or your organization) talking about your thought-leading status

While these tactics may very well help grow a business or build a brand, I do not at all feel it makes one a thought leader.

On my way home, I replayed the thought leadership conversation mentally, and it really bothered me that so many people actually felt that:

  1. It is really important to be seen (or positioned) as a thought leader
  2. It is relatively straight forward to actually become a thought leader
  3. And labeling yourself as a thought leader is expected in today’s business world

I flat-out disagree! True thought leaders are few and very far between!  They occupy the rarest of rare air!  They are in fact, the types of  extraordinary individuals who win Nobel Prizes!  But I have to admit, I wasn’t able to necessarily come up with a succinct working definition of Thought Leader.

You Just Might Be a Thought Leader

As I batted around some working principles of “thought leadership”, my inner Jeff Foxworthy took over.  Given no widely agreed upon definition for Thought Leadership, I took a crack at coming up with some of my own criteria.

  • If you have a body of thought named after you . . . you just might be a thought leader.
  • If you have created a widely used strategic framework, and it is named after you . . . you just might be a thought leader.
  • If you have developed an approach that has become the foundation for an industry or broader discipline . . . you just might be a thought leader.
  • If your approach to something has revolutionized the path forward for your field . . . you just might be a thought leader.
  • If you have an elementary particle named after you . . . you just might be a thought leader (with a nod to this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics recipient Peter Higgs).
  • If you have actually won the Nobel Prize . . . you just might a thought leader.

And here’s one more for good measure:

  • If you have the audacity call yourself a thought leader . . . you most definitely are NOT a thought leader!

I’m sure with more time, I could add to my list, but this is a pretty good starting point.  Besides, I’d love to hear some of your Jeff Foxworthy-esque thought leadership criteria! Woody Bendle

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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  • http://facebook.com/pages/Mind-Your-Own-Body-LLC/119097894811058 Kevin M. Norris

    Hi Woody Bendle!

    I think therefore I am? Thanks for clarifying the notion of what makes up a thought leader. I really did not have the foggiest of ideas.

  • http://smallbusinesstalent.com/ Stephen Lahey

    Interesting post. My two cents? Thought leadership (like any kind of real leadership) is about impact.

  • paul4innovating

    I also have been chewing over an interesting statistic found out in some research in the UK. 86% of clients often forward interesting material to colleagues and friends. So in writing it os worthwhile thinking about this extended audience- the readers behind your readers. It is often used if a good article or piece as some form of collateral to persuade or offer a view to support your opinion or encourage others to relate to this.

  • Bradley Woody Bendle

    Appreciate all of the “thoughts” here as well as on several LinkedIn groups. It seems that a common thread from everyone so far is that thought leaders are champions and catalysts for new and/or expanded thinking. They challenge and open others’ perspectives…

  • Doug Von Feldt

    Great article. I think I need to take the thought leader tag line off of my profile.

  • Craig Badings

    Woody welcome to our world. I have written a number of books on the topic, the latest with Dr Liz Alexander. We also consult and blog about it at http://www.leadingthought.us.com. A lot of my time is spent correcting mis-perceptions about what it is and what it is not. Like you I am amazed at how many self confessed thought leaders there are and how much content attracts the self-labelled thought leadership tag.

    There are many definitions but ours is: “Delivering new insights
    that go beyond mere content in order to help you and your customer/market
    achieve results-focused, transformative change.” From this you will no doubt realise that I have to disagree with you that thought leaders are only extraordinary leaders who attract Nobel Prizes. There are lots of corporations out there doing some very interesting things in the realm of thought leadership e.g. SKM, IBM (Smarter Planet), McKinsey, Booz&Co (Global Innovation 1000), GE (Ecomagination) not to mention individuals who will never win a Nobel Prize but who influence and change paradigms within the industries in which they work.

    Thought leadership is all about understanding the challenges and issues your audience faces and then providing them with insights or knowledge that helps change the way they see and do things for the better. There are lots of people doing this across multiple industries and nor does it necessarily have to be through content.

    Ultimately the audience always has the last say – they decide whether you are a thought leader or not.

    • Bradley Woody Bendle

      Craig – Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      I think we’re nearly 100% aligned on this; and I totally agree with you that Thought Leadership is not reserved only for those who win Nobel Prizes.

      There are in fact many disciplines not eligible for the Nobel and that does not make persons in those fields any lesser in terms of thought leadership. I would consider people like Picasso, Les Paul, Edison, Alfred Hitchcock, Edward de Bono, Drucker, Deming, and Clay Christensen to be in the family of Thought Leaders.

      My point above is that I personally feel that there should be better delineation between “experts”, “process/practice leadership”, “thought champions” and ultimately true “Thought Leaders.”

      As you point out, it essentially boils down to people who initiate and put forward new thinking and perspectives (and/or greatly expand upon it) in order to make some sort of a meaningful impact – regardless of their field.

      As with so many things, there is a lot of subjectivity surrounding how one classifies “Thought Leadership,” and as you correctly point out, it is ultimately for others to judge.

      • Craig Badings

        Bradley we certainly appear to be on the same page and I think your question about delineation between experts, thought champions, thought leaders, etc is one that requires further thinking and consideration.

        Linked to this, in one of our models, Dr Alexander and put thought leaders into the following categories: Visionary (e.g. Patagonia, Whole Foods Market), Innovators (e.g. Apple, Dove, IBM, GE) and Problem Solvers (e.g. McKinsey, Booz&Co, PwC).

  • zornwil

    Just as “innovation” has become perverted, in the business context, to mean any kind of improvement, however incremental or minor, so, too, is “thought leader.”
    For the most part, it seems to me, the business world detests attaching hard meaning to words. I suspect this is largely related to the widespread practices/behaviors of avoiding specific responsibility while being able to claim credit at any opportune point.
    I’m not sure what can be done. Great to see people more rigorously and seriously considering such issues as in this article and these comments, though.

  • sage advice

    I’m a bit confused. If a Nobel prize is so great, how is it that Yasser Arafat received it for murdering innocent people and Barak Obama got one for absolutely nothing?

  • Gilad

    I get that a lot of these “thought leaders” fill linkedin and other forums with their “insights” in order to get their name out there and have potential clients or employers read their posts and think “hey, I might want to hire this guy.” But as someone who constantly has to evaluate potential vendors for marketing projects, I really don’t pay attention to 99% of the so-called thought leaders on linkedin.

    As marketers, I’m surprised that many so-called thought leaders don’t realize that a lot of people are not going to take you seriously unless you have a recognizeable brand attached to your name. If Kantar came out with a whitepaper on internet qual research, I’d read it because Kantar is a respected brand in the research insights world. I am not going to waste my time reading survey design tips from no name “influencer” who worked for no name companies and has no name clients on his roster.

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