What many business people call “thought leadership content” is educational or informational content written for search. How-to-do something, or maybe what-other-people-in-my-space-think, based on a survey. The headline signals the intent: “7 Ways to Make Your X Better.”
There’s nothing wrong with this content. We’ve all used versions of it to improve our lives. But it’s not thought leadership: It doesn’t lead anyone to a different way of seeing or thinking. And because it’s easy to emulate, it’s not unique. It might build your credibility as an expert, but it doesn’t set you apart from anyone else in your space.
Thought leadership content isn’t a how-to manual. It’s about how to see and how to think differently. There are two genres:
1) The Liberating Lens, which slaps a pair of spectacles on the audience so they can see differently and act accordingly.
Example: This tweet from Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, on the difference between tests for SARSCoV2 infection and testing whether someone is infectious — and why rapid tests are essential for determining the latter:
2) The Light at the End of the Tunnel — the big idea, the one that scares most people at first (it’s a train!) but that enough people who realize they’re in a tunnel want to move towards, because they suddenly see it as the only way out.
Example: Economist Marianna Mazzucato’s distinction between value creation and value extraction — and what that means for capitalism and the public sector’s role in innovation and growth.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel is a framework, a paradigm. It’s typically less immediately actionable than the Liberating Lens — but more transformational. When you offer this light, you deepen your authority immeasurably with your audience.
Both thought leadership genres are about synthesis, argument, teaching, listening, generosity and moving understanding forward. That’s why both map well to public scholarship.
A career in scholarship is about producing lots of #1s and one or more #2s for other specialists.
A career in public scholarship (AKA, thought leadership) has a similar trajectory, only with non-specialists as the audience.
For scholars, thought leadership is actually quite natural. Which is why the abiding prejudice against it in the scholarly world is parochial and benefits no one.