How researchers get heard

Thought Leadership: A Useful Definition

“Thought leadership” is like sardines: often mediocre, terrible reputation but amazing and great for you if sourced and prepared properly.

Of course, that’s not the marketing campaign you’d want for what is — and let’s face both parts of this — an atrociously named but essential content genre experts use to communicate with the rest of us. But it does tell you something that, after decades of editing, ghostwriting and now strategizing for and advising organizations and their thought leaders, I still haven’t come up with a better term — and neither has anyone else. (“Public scholarship” requires scholarship, not expertise. “Applied expertise content” is more accurate, but a mouthful. “Translated expertise” leaves out the applied part. I’ll stop there.)

The “atrociously named” part undermines “thought leadership” on two fronts: It doesn’t qualify the genre nearly enough to exclude pretenders, and it doesn’t convey a sense of precise value. Thatpeople have started putting “authentic” in front of “thought leadership” in a desperate attempt to denote the good stuff tells you how hollowed out the term has become.

And yet it’s also disingenuous how some people (including many thought leaders) reflexively crap all over “thought leadership,” winking at their followers about how much less grifty they (and you) are versus all those charlatan “thought leaders” out there. For example, Ben Thompson yesterday:

This self-congratulation is pervasive enough to have become its own subgenre of … thought leadership.

Let’s grow up. Thought leadership is an established genre in business — what serious business people (and a lot of policymakers) use to describe content marketing and communications that are based on data-informed intel and/or novel ideas. If you’re communicating effectively with business decision makers, you’re using thought leadership in some form — and calling what yourself a “public intellectual” just sounds like you’ve learned how to tie a bow tie. (If this is a real problem for you, read my piece about doing thought leadership when thought leadership makes you want to throw up.)

Still, I wrote “Eight Myths of Thought Leadership” on Tuesday without defining what all this myth making was about. So: Thought leadership contenttranslates your expertise into a usable, portable and shareable format for non-experts and leads them to solutions, insights and/or paradigms they never otherwise would have had.

Expertise made usable, portable, shareable and uniquely insightful: That’s a high bar. And that’s why researchers and research-based organizations that practice thought leadership are some of the world’s most valuable resources. (Which is why I love helping them figure out how to produce more of it.)

So it’s in the best interest of your research-driven organization (and you) to start calling balls and strikes. To say: “Thought leadership is this. I do it; we do it. They don’t.”

You know: Sardines, fresh from the sea, grilled over charcoal.

Takeaway: All parts of this definition of “thought leadership” are critical to making it rare and thus valuable. Not just your expertise, but each of the steps to broaden its utility as content. The best way to ensure this transformation from expertise to usable, portable, shareable, uniquely insightful content is happening consistently in your organization? Develop a strategy and an ecosystem to nurture it. Unsure about how to do that? Let’s talk.