Skip navigation

Why we need to embrace the concept of thought leadership (and all it stands for)


DATE: 01 November, 2016

The term thought leadership, and by default, ‘thought leader' – has been rendered meaningless in recent years. Now I admit I've had a love-hate relationship with the term over the journey. What about you? I bet you don't like hearing or seeing the words ‘thought leader' either 🙂

A key reason for this anti-thought leader sentiment is the growing trend of blatant self-proclamation.

Everyone today has a digital mouthpiece, and far too many people are using social media and online publishing platforms to beat their chests and tell the world how great they are. Rather than earn the right for someone else to refer to them as a thought leader, they're going off and bestowing the title upon themselves. Ditto ‘expert' and ‘authority'.

And companies are not immune either, often claiming they're thought leaders in their particular space when chances are, they're not.

Hence the term ‘thought leader' is fast becoming impotent.

It's time ladies and gentlemen to rise up and reclaim the concept of thought leadership and all it represents.

Welcome to the NEW thought leader

The emergence of social media technologies has seen the rise of a new type of thought leader, one that is far removed from the ‘traditional' thought leader (who more often than not was a product of the media and liked to hang around the ivory tower a bit too much).

‘New' thought leaders are passionate, smart, professional subject matter experts who have advanced the conversation around their particular areas of interest and expertise. But they're more than experts – they are genuine authorities. They're the people the media come to for quotes; they bob up often as guests on podcast interview shows; publishers approach them to write books, and people come to hear them speak.

New Thought Leaders use social media and online publishing platforms such as blogs, podcasts and webinars to share their ideas with the world; they're active on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn; they record and share online videos, they live stream … and more importantly, they understand the importance of audience, of building a tribe … of bringing people along for the journey. It's less about them, and more about widening and deepening the conversation around their respective topics of interest.

Here are some examples:

  • Dionne LewThe Social Executive; her focus is educating the ‘C Suite' on the importance of digital and social media.
  • If it wasn't for Joe Pulizzi, the discipline of content marketing would not be as ingrained in the business psyche as it is today.
  • Susan Cain has become the voice for introverts the world over and is a key driver behind Quiet Revolution – what started as a book and became a global movement.
  • Darren Woolley – founder of the global consulting firm TrinityP3 – has done more than probably anyone in his industry to advance the cause of the marketing management function.

These four individuals are changing the way we think about things!

What about companies?

Let's turn our attention to companies and organisations for a minute: Why the heck do they hide their internal experts in the shadows of the cubicle farm, away from public view where they can probably be more useful and valuable than the money wasted on inward-looking ads and promotional brochures?

The annual Edelman Trust Barometer tells us time and time again: The most trusted sources of information for an organisation are its internal experts, along with credible third-parties such as academics. This has been the case for years.

Now … not every expert is, or will become (or even will want to become) a thought leader – not by a long shot.

With encouragement and free rein and through personal commitment, internal experts can grow from being someone who simply uses their bank of skills, knowledge and expertise to help others, to becoming genuine thought leaders with the ability to move people with their ideas.

Which is why we need to embrace the concept of thought leadership and all it stands for

  • Bona fide thought leaders are brimming with ideas. They drive conversation and ignite debate. They challenge our thinking and they encourage others to do the same.
  • The world does not need more noise, platitudes and group-think.
  • But we DO need more good ideas and thoughtful commentary around those ideas.
  • We need frameworks that simplify difficult concepts.
  • And we need credible experts who lead the way, who can take us by the hand and show us pathways we didn't know existed; leaders who can inspire and influence us to take action through their stories, their insights, their wisdom, their reasoning and their experience.

My message here is to identify and nurture the potential thought leaders in your organisation.

Or, if you have a solo gig and your stock-in-trade is your knowledge, experience and expertise in a particular area – set your sights higher! Position yourself as a thought leader in your field. There's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to become recognised as a go-to expert. There's nothing wrong with aspiring to be seen as a thought leader. On the contrary – it's a good thing!

Because it's going to mean you're putting out into the world considered concepts, ideas, views, opinions and perspectives on specific topics.

And you're encouraging others to do so too.

It's about making a lasting impact on people and leaving the world in better shape than you found it.

And that is something to be encouraged and applauded, not ridiculed.


Trevor Young is founder of PR Warrior, a consulting practice specialising in content-driven social PR. Trevor hosts Reputation Revolution, the DIY personal branding podcast for business professionals, and is author of the book, microDOMINATION: How to Leverage Social Media and Content Marketing to Build a Mini-Business Empire Around Your Personal Brand, published through Wiley. Trevor's popular marketing blog PR Warrior, which he started in 2007, has been listed by both Smart Company and Search Engine Journal as one of Australia's top business blogs. In 2014, Brand Quarterly included Trevor on its annual ‘50 Marketing Thought Leaders Over 50' list; more recently, Sydney Morning Herald named Trevor as one of eight ‘heroes of Australian content marketing'.