Within the marketing industry, the buzzwords and industry jargon change rapidly whether it be the newly coined term or an upcycle, so to speak, of an older one. There is one term in particular, however, that has caught my attention recently: thought leader. The term thought leader (or rather concept) has come to encompass a grandiose number of definitions and individuals. Blogger Chris Koch claims that it has been so diluted by overuse that it is now a throw-away descriptor. This doesn’t stop Koch, though, from defining it:

Thought leadership is a way to build a relationship with prospects based on knowledge—not on products and services.

This particular definition is more suited, however, to thought marketing leadership. A more traditional sense of the term thought leader is an advocate for new ideas—a guru, sage, kibitzer, doyen, gadfly—anything indicating a person who is constantly ahead of their time or who knows the rules of their industry enough to be able to break them effectively.

Seth Godin, who could be considered a thought leader due to his prolific publications, successful and failed entrepreneurial endeavors, and career as a public speaker, was interviewed by TechCrunch regarding his status as a thought leader. They write about his observational powers:

Oddly enough…the things that Seth Godin notices are often so big and obvious that everybody else misses them. For example, Godin has noticed that the industrial age has just ended – and it’s this fact that drives much of his thinking about our indispensability in the post industrial age.

TechCrunch identifies a great definition of a thought leader in that quote about Godin: someone who notices things so big and so obvious that everyone else manages to overlook them.

Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz, Allen & Hamilton magazine Strategy & Business is credited with the creation of the term thought leader in 1994. He interviewed individuals for the magazine who had “business ideas that merited attention.” Godin could definitely qualify as an individual with a business idea that merited attention, though he is quick to point out that he made several failed business attempts before building Yoyodyne, which was later bought by Yahoo. Thought leader, then, is a term used indispensably in business as CEOs and large companies search for the next industry-breaking idea that will, as Koch noted, push products and, occasionally, better customer relationships.

Now that we know both the traditional definition of thought leader and a marketing industry-specific definition, how would you define thought leader? Where do you look in your industry for that observational thinker who can redefine your industry standards?

In our blog post Business Partners vs Vendors, the Agility of the Small Agency we explore the advantages of the small agency for the creation and implementation of innovative ideas. Here at LIME we also believe in the power of the team. After all, are thought leaders born, nurtured and educated, or forged through collaboration? Do thought leaders always have to be that stellar, untouchable individual or can they be teams united by a common goal? Google certainly believes in the power of the team; they offer their employees on-the-clock time to pursue personal projects they believe could hold possibilities for the company.†

Here are two other interesting organizations that are exploring and observing the world at large in a manner very much like Seth Godin: Ignite and TED. Ignite was founded in 2006 to explore any idea an individual is passionate about be it related to their professional life or not. As Ignite describes itself on their webpage: ”Ignite is a force for raising the collective IQ and building connections in each city.” Ignite gathers together a group of individuals to present five minute talks on any subject about which they are passionate.

TED, which stand for technology, education, design, is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading (their emphasis), and their mission is to spread these ideas in a way that will “…change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.” They have been offering free recordings of various speakers since their founding in 1984.

What exactly do these two organizations have in common? They offer a place for people to gather and collaborate through a process of presentation and archiving available to anyone interested enough to participate. They also embrace the characteristic that seems to be most common in a thought leader: passion. Without passion, be it in the individual, in the workplace team or large company new ideas or riffs on a much older idea never see the light of day.

So whether you choose to define a thought leader as someone who excels at reaching out to consumers and closing sales or observing industry-changing trends and inspiring passion for new ideas, it is worth it to remember the term. Look for more industry-jargon defining posts in the future and let us know what you think a thought leader is.

†The Google Way http://www.infoworld.com/t/business/google-way-790