One of the most common objectives for services-based firms over the last decade, regardless of industry, has been to establish thought leadership. And while it remains a vitally important marketing and business objective, the phrase is at risk of losing the weight of its meaning.

Thought Leadership

Oxford dictionary defines a thought leader as “one whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential.” The term has been around for about 20 years—coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of Strategy & Business—and was used to designate magazine interviewees who had business ideas that merited attention. Since that time, the phrase has become a staple in business vernacular and the idea of thought leadership now extends beyond individuals to encompass companies and other organizations.

Today, the value of thought leadership is simple: if you are the authoritative and influential expert on a particular subject matter, you’ll be ultimately rewarded with more business than your competitors. This is especially of importance for B2B firms who sell services, which are largely intangible. A client is essentially hiring your firm for its intellectual capital—the unique collection of people, processes, expertise and ideas that shape your firm.

Thought leadership, as a concept, is a valuable and differentiating competitive advantage, but it’s also misunderstood. Here are some perspectives on what thought leadership is all about.

A thought leader is something you are

Oxford’s definition of thought leader connotes expertise and authority. It’s someone whose opinions matter and whose views influence and impact those around him. Being a thought leader isn’t something you can simply become because you want to be. It’s a byproduct of your thoughts, opinions and expertise on a specific subject matter. In other words, you can’t pretend to be a thought leader, at least not a real one. Thought leadership comes from doing and being, not from saying. It requires an investment of time and research to build authority. It’s more than having an opinion; it’s having an opinion that people pay attention to because of who you are and what you know.

Thought leadership is something you do

For companies that are serious about thought leadership as a strategy for a competitive advantage, it has to be viewed as a verb and not a noun. It’s not something you can simply tell marketing to add to the marketing plan; your firm has to be active and intentional at being thought leaders. There are a myriad of tactics and tools available to marketers today, but thought leadership is not one of them. Content marketing is often confused for thought leadership, but the activity alone doesn’t create it. Marketing can only support and convey what actually exists. You have to be a thought leader if your content is going to pass as thought leadership.

Thought leadership demands leading the pack, not following it

Up until this point, most of the emphasis has been on the first half of the phrase — thought. But one of the primary reasons why the phrase is losing its meaning is because many overlook the second half — leadership. By definition it’s about leading, not following. It’s about guiding and directing the conversation, while everyone else follows your lead. So thought leadership is not about saying and doing what everyone else is, it’s about going somewhere no one else has been. It’s about originality.

Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your thoughts and opinions will always be counter to everyone else, nor does it mean that everything you say and do will always be completely new—there is, after all, nothing new under the sun. But it does mean that your ideas, opinions and content are uniquely yours, not just the recited opinions of others. Thought leadership is about having an ownable and unique perspective—backed by both conviction and authority.

Thought leadership requires courage and risk tolerance

Standing out of from a crowd of “me toos” is not for the faint of heart. Being a true thought leader requires you and/or your company to march to the beat of your own drum, covering new ground and taking a different approach than your peers. This makes some firms uncomfortable—not wanting to make waves or stick their necks out for fear of criticism or failure. But that’s what thought leadership is. It’s being the first (or one of the first) to take an approach, give an opinion, or share an idea that will influence the thinking and action of others. That is an incredibly risky and daunting thing to do, but for those who are willing to try, they will stand out in their industry.

The truth is, thought leadership can’t be faked. It isn’t a marketing exercise. It’s a fundamental component of the brand and culture of a company. You’re either a thought leader or a thought follower. And your content marketing will reflect it.