Readers of this blog know that I like to define terms that have become over-used to the point of meaninglessness. “Thought leader” is one of those terms. The designation has been applied to long-established experts as well as overnight, social media sensations. What do we mean when we say someone is a thought leader?
First use of the term is attributed to Joel Kurtzman who, in 1994, used it in marketing to refer to companies that were intentionally positioned to become known as authorities on a particular product or service. It has taken on additional meanings since then.
Something close to Kurtzman's definition is the Wikipedia definition: …an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.
Russ Alan Prince and Bruce Rogers writing for Forbes, "Becoming a thought leader is about making money and making history."
Lauren Hockenson, writing for Mashable, makes the label a little harder to come by when she suggests that a thought leader is someone deserving of our admiration. She writes:
The term thought leader is the highest of compliments, and arguably the hardest moniker to achieve. It’s not enough to be good at what you do; a thought leader is meant to be the greatest form of praise, geared towards someone who is on the absolute cutting edge of their industry or making big enough moves to warrant the distinction.
However, Alex Ivanovs, a contributor to HuffPost, argues that social media popularity makes someone a thought leader and he goes as far as to say, “We're all thought leaders in our own way, we just have to accept that.” With social media and the opportunity to “go viral”, a new kind of thought leader can emerge almost in an instant.
As a former academic, I always considered a thought leader to be an individual or organization that has earned the distinction through years of experience combined with research, publications, public speaking, teaching, inventions, and, possibly, awards. It’s an individual or organization that has shaped our thinking and practice. When it comes to leadership, it's people like Ken Blanchard, Tom Peters, and Jim Collins. When it comes to organizational learning, it's people like Peter Senge, David Garvin, and Edgar Schein. When it comes to teamwork, it's people like Jon Katzenbach, Douglas K. Smith, and David Sibbet.
Maybe some people are all over Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin, but that’s not what makes them thought leaders. I reserve that accolade for people and firms that truly lead while the rest of us follow. We look to them for the latest and greatest thinking on a particular topic and they are credible because of what they know and what they have accomplished. Fame might be part of it but it's not the whole picture.