How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

How to Do Thought Leadership When ‘Thought Leadership’ Makes You Want to Throw Up


“Thought leadership.” Does the mere phrase make you a little queasy?

Aren’t “thought leaders” just corner-cutting meme hucksters out to land a TED talk and sell a book?

Isn’t “thought leadership” Tang to the freshly squeezed orange juice that is true public intellectualism and the pursuit of real knowledge?

Is there a more abused, more devalued concept?

Let’s step back. Take a breath.

Of course there is a lot of fake “thought leadership” out there. Boyis there ever.

But among the markets I serve, there are also tens of thousands of researchers that do great thought leadership content. 

Like Steven PinkerZeynep TufekciTyler Cowen. And Danah Boyd.

Thought leadership is how they get more people — including decision-makers — talking about their ideas, paradigms and solutions. 

It looks like this:

  1. They apply research, analysis or synthesis to real-world problems in ways that produce new solutions or new insights on the problems;
  2. They frame their insights clearly and persuasively, so that decision-makers and others can understand and implement;
  3. Then they get those insights into the right hands, so the insights can drive change.

That’s it. That’s research-driven thought leadership.

Thought leadership also anchors content marketing for most elite research-driven organizations. It’s their most important engine of attention, mindshare and audience growth.

Thought Leadership as an Early Warning System

Despite all this, a lot of researchers still find the phrase presumptuous and empty. 

Or, as one scientist put it to me recently: “It makes me want to throw up.”

If the thought of being labeled a “thought leader” has you reaching for the air sickness bag, understand this: Thought leaders worth the name don’t call themselves “thought leaders.” No “Thought Leader” logo t-shirts or ball caps. 

Thought leadership is an internal label, a way of organizing effort to focus time and resources. If your marketing team thinks the term has value for external audiences, get another marketing team.

If the term “thought leadership” still gives you the willies, try the definition a scientist who works for a global NGO told me he uses:

As an early warning system of actionable intelligence for the world.

His thought leadership content takes what he and his colleagues see happening on the ground — which is a lot, precisely because of the organization’s global reach — and turns it into content that alerts decision-makers to trends journalists or others would have only uncovered years later…when it was too late to do something about them.

How can you and your organization function as an early warning system — for your membership, sector, policymakers, the media, or whichever key audience you want to cultivate?

His content often complements and is tethered to newly published research. It also often runs before that research is published and remains observational, but no less valuable. He also comments on research — germane to his field and the organization’s work — published by experts outside his organization. 

Regardless of the content, his consistent approach is to nest any piece of research or data within a broader analysis that’s maximally valuable to his organization’s decision-making audiences.

Thought leadership as an early warning system is a deliberately narrow definition of “thought leadership.” 

But using this narrower definition positions this scientist. It improves his content for non-specialist — and it improves his value as a fundraiser, makes him more attractive as a conference speaker, and elevates him as a resource for media.

Voila: an unashamed thought leader.

How can you and your organization function as an early warning system — for your membership, sector, policymakers, the media, or whichever key audience you want to cultivate?

Let go of what fake “thought leaders” are doing. Think instead about what you’re in a position to helping your audience see before anyone else can. That’s fantastically valuable to you, your audiences and your organization. That’s thought leadership.