“I Can Thought Leadership, and So Can You”

Take The Lead Drives Change—thought leadership for systems change—is one of our four keys to leadership parity for women. If the idea of thought leadership has been a mystery to you, my friend, author and thought leadership coach Deborah Siegel, clears the cobwebs off a musty idea and encourages us to speak our piece with purpose. This guest blog comes courtesy of Deborah and was originally published at Girl w/Pen.

(Or, What All Good Thought Leaders Can Learn from Academics, and What Academics Can Learn from Business, Too)

When LinkedIn launched its thought leaders feature in October 2012 (Follow Richard Branson! Follow Barack Obama!), they were flooded with aspiring contenders who self-nominated, then closed off applications once they reached 150. No matter that the list seemed to skew (ahem) male. Some LinkedIn members created forums to figure out the formula to get in, to no avail.

Image source:  Yagoshi

Image source: Yagoshi

But if you want to know who has really cracked the code (or, a piece of it, anyway), look to academics.  Academics are the original, not to mention some of the most original, thought leaders. They lead with their thought—always have, and hopefully, always will. The time is ripe to learn from the masters. Because as the term “thought leadership” becomes more and more widely applied, some important principles continue to get lost.

How did such a lofty term become DIY, and what does “thought leadership” actually mean, academic colleagues ask me these days, in a business sense? Coined in 1994, according to an oft-cited Wikipedia entry, by strategy+business editor-in-chief Joel Kurtzman, the term “thought leader” initially referred to interview subjects covered in his magazine. Used here and there over the next decade, “thought leader” fast became one of the cool-kid buzzwords of the 2010s, so much so that we are now seeing a backlash against the term.

In the iconoclastic spirit of Colbert, “I can thought leadership, and so can you.”

Definitions abound. Last year, Social Strand Media’s Tracy Sestili published a list of 21 of them. In May 2013, Mashable’s James O’Brien offered a longer “true history” of thought leadership tracing the term’s origins back to McKinsey Quarterly circa 1964 and noting that while social media has since brought about an incredible democratization, it has also wrought a dilution. Self-nomination in the Twitter-sphere and on the conference circuit does not a thought leader make.

But what does?

Two core traits, I believe, define thought leadership, at heart. And academics know these traits well.  They are:

1. Long-term commitment

To all those seeking a quick fix, remember that thought leadership is cumulative. “Rather like achieving academic tenure,” says Rebecca Lieb in Mashable, “[t]hought leadership requires a continuum of wisdom, accomplishment, and a body of published work that stands the test of a degree of time.”

There’s no fast track. It takes work. And so, thought leadership can hardly be monetized right away.

2. Authenticity

Thought leaders are not manufactured. Instead, they lead from within.

Lewis Howes, who literally wrote the book on LinkedIn writes over at Clarity blog: “Thought leaders are indispensable because they’re custom made. Their unique experiences and choices have shaped who they are and how they perceive their environment, which makes them one of a kind.”

Big agree. And more on that in a future post.

But back to my point. Aspiring platform creators, idea entrepreneurs, social entreprises, and businesses can, in cultivating authenticity and commitment, take a page from a professor’s book. In all fairness, can’t an academic (and other expert individuals seeking a public voice) learn from industry-driven thought leadership gurus, in turn?


From Sestili’s compiled list of 21 definitions, all of which come from the business realm, here are five that I believe academics seeking a platform beyond academe would do well to absorb*:

  1. Shel Israel: A thought leader is someone who looks at the future and sets a course for it that others will follow. Thought leaders look at existing best practices then come up with better practices. They foment change, often causing great disruption.

  2. Jeanine Moss: Thought Leadership is the ability to aggregate followers around ideas to educate, influence and inspire.

  3. Tom Paul, COO Pop-Art: To be a company that exemplifies thought leadership, you need to have an idea engine, a concept forge, AS WELL AS [sic] an outward-leaning communication stance combined with a desire to raise the playing field – a capability to not only learn new things, to not only discover them for the first time, but to educate others – selflessly.

  4. TechCrunch: (on being a thought leader) someone who notices things so big and so obvious that everyone else manages to overlook them.

  5. Scott Ginsberg: A trusted source who moves people with innovative ideas.

In other words, for scholars to be thought leaders in the more popular sense of the term, they need to develop a wider platform, accrue followers beyond their students, embrace forms of communication that may be new to them, and—my personal favorite—move people, publicly, with their ideas.

How do you define “thought leadership”? Do you bristle at or embrace the term? Drop me a line in comments, or tweet me @deborahgirlwpen. I’d love to hear.

*For one of the more thoughtful takes, in the business realm, on creating thoughtful thought leadership, see this piece by Daniel W. Rasmus at Fast Company.

About the Author

Deborah Siegel, PhD is an expert on gender, politics, and the unfinished business of feminism across generations. She is the author of Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild (Palgrave), co-editor of the literary anthology Only Child (Random House), co-founder of both the webjournal The Scholar & Feminist Online and the popular website SheWrites.com>, and a collaborateur with The OpEd Project.