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Definition

thought leader (thought leadership)

A thought leader is an individual or an organization whose expertise in a certain area is highly respected and in demand by co-workers, colleagues, clients, customers, competitors and even outside interests.

Thought leadership generally pioneers new ideas rather than follow conventional wisdom.

They use their authority to influence their areas of expertise to generate revenue for themselves and for their organizations and to create value for entities that seek them out.

Thought leaders are generally among the most successful individuals in their fields or among the most successful organizations in their sectors. But a thought leader is more than an expert; a thought leader is authoritative and influential in his or her particular subject area.

There are, however, varying views on how influential and authoritative an individual or organization should be to be considered a thought leader.

Some would label an individual as a thought leader if he or she uses their expertise to influence colleagues within their own organizations or would consider an enterprise as a thought leader if it were setting standards among its narrow group of peer organizations.

Others believe individuals or organizations must demonstrate a more expansive range of influence to be considered thought leaders, labeling an individual or an organization a thought leader only after people outside the entity's own workplace or peer group see the individual or organization on the forefront of the subject.

Others say thought leaders can only be considered such if they're able to capitalize on their expertise and influence, thereby making money for themselves or their businesses based on their position as a leading and influential authority on a subject.

Examples of thought leaders

In the field of computers and IT, thought leadership abounds. Examples include two American pioneers of the personal computer revolution of the 1970s, Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, and the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Futurist, prolific author and inventor Ray Kurzweil, who received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the United States' highest honor in technology, in recent years has promoted the idea of a hybrid human brain whose biological thinking is enhanced by artificial intelligence and other IT tools. Clayton Christensen, the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and widely recognized as the foremost authority on disruptive innovation, is a thought leader for companies being disrupted by digital technologies.

History of the term

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of thought leader was in 1887 by authors Lyman Abbott and S.B. Halliday, who in their biography of Henry Ward Beecher described the abolitionist as "one of the great thought leaders in America." The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was described as demonstrating "the wizard power of a thought-leader" in an article in the 1876 Theistic Annual. The term was revived in the 1980s by the business press. Wikipedia cites a 1990 story by Patrick Reilly in The Wall Street Journal marketing section that used the term "thought leader publications" to refer to such magazines as Harper's. Business guru Joel Kurtzman, a managing senior fellow at think tank Milken Institute and himself considered a thought leader, is often credited with coining thought leader in the 1990s when he was editor in chief of Strategy+Business magazine.

Thought leader vs. expert

Thought leaders are experts in their particular subject area (or areas), and it is this expertise and firm command of a subject that helps them establish themselves as authorities on the given topic.

In that way, they are, indeed, subject matter experts.

However, while thought leaders are almost universally subject matter experts, not all subject matter experts are thought leaders.

What separates the two groups is how they use their expertise.

Subject matter experts use their knowledge and skills to perform to the highest standards. They may also teach or mentor others, but they share their expertise by presenting the current understanding of the information.

Thought leaders, in contrast, use their knowledge and skill as subject matter experts to push their subject of expertise to new heights and to drive innovation. In other words, they inspire others and lead their audience of followers to do the same.

Characteristics of thought leaders

There's no one trait that defines a thought leader, although researchers, consultants and others who have studied this topic identify a number of characteristics that most thought leaders tend to have. They say thought leaders generally show that they are authentic and have vision. They are influential and capable of inspiring others to follow their lead.

They're not afraid to go against the status quo, and they embrace change.

Why thought leaders are important

Thought leaders are critical to advancing any particular professional area or any specific business sector to a higher level of achievement. As such, they help drive innovation and discovery. But, as noted, they typically also help generate new business and revenue for themselves as individuals and for their companies. Enterprises that are thought leaders can count on that status to help bring clients and customers to them, as those clients and customers believe that they're getting a superior service or product because it comes from leaders in that space.


Learn why thought leadership is as much about doing
as thinking.

Since its revival in the 1980s, the term has remained very much in vogue; indeed, becoming a thought leader in one's field is now considered an important component of a successful career. For the McKinseys and Deloittes of the marketplace -- firms that survive by giving advice -- being recognized as a thought leader is essential to making money.

How to become a thought leader

Individuals or organizations seeking to become thought leaders must first be experts in their particular fields.

From there, they need to establish themselves as authorities on the subject with as broad an audience as possible. They do that by writing and speaking on their area of expertise, networking to expand their areas of influence, and using social media to build an audience.

Experts who want to become thought leaders must also develop their own vision for their fields of expertise, present that vision to peers and sway their colleagues and clients to the truth of that perspective.

Not surprisingly, the business press is filled with advice on how to become a thought leader. In her Nov. 9, 2010, article in Harvard Business Review, "How to Become a Thought Leader in Six Steps," marketing consultant Dorie Clark emphasized that, in a globalized economy, employees and executives alike need to build their reputation as a "singular expert" who doesn't just participates in the workplace conversation but drives it. She recommended that people follow these six steps to launch their thought leadership:

  1. Create a robust online presence.
  2. Flaunt high-quality affiliations.
  3. Give public speeches.
  4. Appear on TV.
  5. Win some awards.
  6. Publish a book.

As some thought leadership promoters acknowledge, being a thought leader comes with risks. The spotlight that thought leaders enjoy means they are also open targets for criticism or ridicule if their ideas are shown to be foolish.

This was last updated in July 2018

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