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WTF Is “Thought Leadership” Really, and Should CMOs Bother With It?

By Melissa Lafsky September 9th, 2015

Thought leadership! It’s become one of those buzz-phrases that’s so ubiquitous, no one even bothers to make fun of it anymore. But even with all the hype, no one can escape the fact that if you are a C-level exec or business leader, then you should be doing it a lot, and in as many places as possible.

Why? Because when done well, thought leadership delivers true benefit—both for the people writing it and the people reading it. But a lot of supposed “thought leadership” falls short of the latter.

WTF is thought leadership, anyway?

Before we launch into more explanations, let’s first define thought leadership. On a holistic level, thought leadership is a means of influencing and disrupting societal norms. Human beings exist in a form of stasis, with our brains learning just enough to keep us alive under the conditions we’re in, while mental auto-pilot systems take over everything else. Where thought leadership comes in is in turning this great mass of human auto-pilotism on its head. Ideas can be introduced and presented to the public that literally shift the direction of social thought and action.

Top-level examples of this? The Declaration of Independence. The “I Have a Dream” speech. The Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. Each presented a new way of thinking that disrupted the agreed-upon order of How Things Are, and provoked radical social shifts.

When applied to corporate America, the rules of thought leadership, while perhaps not as inspiring, still apply. Leaders in the business world with valuable insights to share have a podium to express those ideas freely, and possibly guide the future of their industries, or even make statements that influence the working world at large.

The problem is that the pool has been diluted. As more and more people leap on the Thought Leadership bandwagon, the distinction between ideas that actually lead thought, and those that do not, is getting murkier.

Real thought leadership

When thought leadership is done well—meaning a truly insightful and powerful idea expressed with skillful storytelling and published on a platform with smart distribution—it’s a win for everybody. Readers get a takeaway that has tangible value for their industry, or their business, or even their career. And authors get the cachet and influence that come with being a true “thought leader.”

In the marketing/ad world, there’s no shortage of smart, bleeding edge writing that has upended conventions, started conversations, and driven action. Some CMOs have made big splashes by challenging “big corporate” functioning and adding some basic lessons in being human while still holding a big job. Even execs who are no longer “in the game” are able to drop some perspective on the younger crowd and get them thinking about whether past is prologue.

Sounds great, right? Let’s all get on that!

The issue, of course, is that you can’t generate “thought leadership” just for the sake of it. In order to express original and impactful ideas, you have to have them.

As authors/potential authors of thought leadership, the onus is on C-suiters to determine which of their thoughts are just thoughts, and which are worth designating as “leadership.” The key to knowing the difference is developing a keen sense of the past. What ideas have moved the needle in your industry in the past year or two? Take a look at the highest traffic generators on LinkedIn, and look for common themes. Pay attention to the top influencers in your industry—why are they influential? What insights are they offering, and what topics are they staying away from?

Above all, avoid anything resembling the following drill: “Quick! We need to lead some thought! Get an intern to ghost-write some posts about stuff that’s trending on Google! Throw them up on LinkedIn!”

This type of “thought leadership” doesn’t deserve the name. There’s no respect for the reader’s time, no desire to solve a problem the audience is having.

What’s the key to creating effective and engaging thought leadership that pierces the digital noise? In short, it’s all about isolating your “special sauce” that has brought you to success in the first place, and finding authentic ways to showcase it through narratives that truly speak to audiences. (My company has been boiling it down to a science, which we now offer in our Thought Leadership Boot Camp for execs and companies looking to create top-shelf thought leadership that actually, well, leads thought.)

Still, even with all the boot camps in the world, effective thought leadership takes work, discipline, and, of course, great ideas. If leading thought were a task you could slap on the end of a To Do list, human society would be a hell of a lot more advanced than it is now (for starters, we’d have eliminated things like famine, highway fatalities, and dating apps).

The digital landscape has given C-suiters more opportunities than ever to say insightful and powerful things about their businesses. But the onus stays on the author to make sure that what you’re sharing is real thought leadership, not self-promotion.

Melissa Lafsky Wall (@Lafsky) is the founder of Brick Wall Media.

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