CommonSense Blog

The Rules of Thought Leadership

By Allie McCormick | Oct 08, 2013

With the changing media landscape, the concept of Thought Leadership has become, and should be, an integral part of every organization’s communication strategy. Most executives consider themselves Thought Leaders, and why not?

Thought Leaders are influential.

Thought Leaders have clout.

When Thought Leaders talk, people listen.

So here’s the problem; most companies are doing it wrong. Whether the goal is to be an internal or external Thought Leader, here are a few rules to help you navigate your way to influential success.

1. Don’t talk about Thought Leadership
Just like Fight Club, the first rule of Thought Leadership is to never talk about Thought Leadership. Like picking out your own nickname, designating yourself a Thought Leader makes you immediately lose credibility among your peers. I’ve seen multiple instances where brands have “Thought Leadership” sections on their websites or even title blog posts or other material “(Product Category) Thought Leadership”. Please stop. If you want people to read your opinions, call them that. Insights, trends, points of view, etc., there are lots of options that can be customized to fit your business. Start your original thoughts with an original title, and begin influencing your followers organically, not because you’ve told them that’s what you’re trying to do.

2. Have a Unique Point of View
In order to be a true Thought Leader, you must have a thought that is worthy to lead with. Seems easy enough, right? Wrong. Just Google something like “Trends in Cloud Computing” and you’ll see what I mean. Dozens of bylines will come up, most likely ghost written by well-meaning PR people, from different executives and they will almost be completely identical. Don’t be afraid to put a stake in the ground and say something to really differentiate yourself from the crowd. Who could forget Larry Ellison’s classic 2009 speech at the Churchill Club about cloud computing, calling it, among other things “water vapor”. Sure, he was wrong, but at the time, he believed that and he said it with conviction. Now Larry has done enough right that this little hiccup is excusable, but it doesn’t work that way for everyone. People will stop listening if your predictions never come to fruition.

3. Thought Leaders are Individuals, not Corporations
Wikipedia defines a Thought Leader as “an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.” I would argue that a firm can’t be a Thought Leader. There needs to be a human element that remains relatable in order for true influence to occur and be effective. Whoever emerges as the Thought Leader, and many times it’s by chance, needs to be visible, relatable, accessible, opinionated, and even more importantly, at some point they will need to be right (see above). Otherwise, they’re just speculating like everyone else.

4. Be Known Outside of Your Circle
In order to be a true Thought Leader, you’ve got to get out there. Speak your truth, and do it where people will hear you. There should be a constant stream of communication coming from you in some form, whether that be regular blog posts on an internal or personal blog, or sharing your content and engaging with others via Twitter, LinkedIn or other social channels. Speak at conferences, on panels; write bylines, guest post on other influential outlets. But more importantly, being a Thought Leader is not a one way street. Not only must you be seen and heard, you must also see and hear. Engage with others. Debate. Be approachable. A Thought Leader is someone that others want to discuss their ideas with, and therefore, truly walk the talk. This is does not just happen, this is built over time. Start small with your circle, and once you begin to influence others in their ideas and thinking, they will share your thoughts with others.

The term Thought Leader seems to be synonymous with visionary, the smartest person in the room, a true trailblazer. In some cases, yes, but not all. The secret to success is being opinionated, transparent, and above all, different from your peers. It’s a commitment to the story, and the ability to successfully share that story across several mediums. PR cannot create a Thought Leader. Stay transparent, be bold, be different, and most importantly, be thoughtful.


  • Great piece, Allie. I’m glad somebody’s actually gone to the trouble of defining thought leadership in the digital age. I especially love that you’ve called out the “individual” aspect of thought leadership; I’d add that in addition to “being right,” thought leaders are often visibly wrong, and call our attention to those times – and more importantly, help us understand WHY they’re wrong.

    The last attribute that I might add to your list is that true thought leaders tend to be incredibly active and generous contributors of their expertise … they are where they are in part because they are passionate about their area of expertise, and see a higher purpose in sharing their knowledge with others. That’s one of the things that makes it easy to spot the phonies; they are trying to hold their cards close & sucker people into paying before they can see any. And there are a LOT of those online! Thanks again for sharing …

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