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Thought Leadership Meaning and Definition

Thought Leadership Meaning: What is a thought leader?

What is a Thought Leader?

Prior to 1990, the term ‘thought leader’ was not widely used. And then suddenly ‘thought leaders’ started appearing everywhere. First in books, then in conversations, it’s now a search term on Google and business experts are branding themselves in ‘thought leadership’.

But is being a thought leader good for your career and business?

To answer that question, we need to consider:

  • How do we define what is a Thought Leader?
  • Thought Leadership Meaning? What does it mean to be a Thought Leader – and how do you become one?
  • The three key trends driving the rise of Thought Leadership

To kick things off let’s look at Thought Leader Meaning and Definition

Definition: What is a Thought Leader?

Let’s start with our definition: What is a Thought Leader?

The literal definition of a Thought Leader is ‘someone who leads with ideas’.

For this to be useful we need to understand how they do this.

Thought Leadership Definition

Traditional leadership uses a command and control style. Essentially, this means you tell people what to do. Think military.

To lead with your ideas, you need a different approach. Fresh ideas present choices or alternatives.

For example, if you were wanting to buy a new mobile phone but didn’t know which one to buy then you might ask your friend, George. He is the person that everyone you know asks about which phone to buy. It’s this reputation that makes George a thought leader in the area of ‘buying a new phone’. He has a special set of knowledge or way of looking at the world, such that his ideas or advice can help you.

Is a Thought Leader an Influencer? 

A simple way to look at this is to compare the terms ‘thought leader’ and ‘influencer’.

Simply put, a thought leader is an influencer. This is important to connect these terms.

Google Books Ngram Viewer measures the word usage of specific terms in books over time. (Note: The data only goes to 2019.)

Rise of Thought Leadership

In the first example, we can see the dramatic rise of the term Thought Leader around 1990.

However, if we compare this to the term Influencer, we can see that they both grew in terms of usage at about the same time. Yet, while Thought Leader has stayed relatively small, Influencer has grown dramatically in usage.

Thought Leader comparison to Influencer

This suggests that Influencer is the broad category, and Thought Leader is a specific type of Influencer.

For instance, while we would call a food blogger an influencer, we may be less likely to call them a thought leader. I think the difference is that a Thought Leader has frameworks, models and insights that change how we see the world. In contrast, an influencer like a food blogger may have a lot of great recipes, but they’re not really changing how we see the world.

Thought Leadership as a subset of Influencer

Typically, a ‘thought leader’ is either a business term or an academic one. In business, a Thought Leader is an industry or subject matter expert. Thought Leaders can work inside organisations or independently as consultants or solo entrepreneurs. In academia, a Thought Leader is someone who presents new ways of looking at things – they lead their field with their thoughts.

One way of saying what a Thought Leader does is that they lead conversations about how things could be.

What’s driving the need for Thought Leadership?

Given that Thought Leadership is a relatively new term, where did it come from? I think there are three strong trends that are driving the rise of Thought Leadership.

1 Work

The first trend driving thought leadership is how work has changed. The big shift here is to knowledge work.

Several hundred years ago most workers in the Western world were on farms. They grew crops and tended animals. Then we had the Industrial Revolution where most workers worked in factories with machines. And over the past one hundred years, especially the past 50 years, the majority of people now work in offices.

Our work is no longer physical, it’s now mental. For most of us our work now happens in our heads and through our conversations. This is a shift from hands (the word manufacture comes the latin word ‘manual’ meaning hands) to our brains or our thoughts.

And given we now think for a living, we need people to turn to for those big ideas. These people are the thought leaders.

2 Leadership

The second trend driving thought leadership are the changes in leadership itself.

Traditionally leadership was based on the military with a boss telling people what to do. This made sense when information was limited. One person could know enough to command others. But now with knowledge work and the rising complexity of the world in which we live, this doesn’t make sense.

Today, no one knows everything that needs to be known. It’s no longer the knowledge that makes the difference but how we work together. This is what most leaders focus on most of the time – how to get things done. You most likely don’t also have the time and attention to put in the effort to also come up with new and innovative ideas.

A thought leader is that subset of leaders who specialise on thinking about how to do things in new and better ways. They do the thinking for us to show us where the opportunities are and how to fulfil them.

3 Social Media

The third trend driving thought leadership is the rise of social media.

In the past, knowledge sources were limited. In a small town, the most educated and most knowledgeable people were the schoolteacher, the church leader or the doctor.

Beyond them, we relied on mass media, (newspapers, radio and television) to tell us what was happening in the world. These were respected sources of knowledge. They were the authorities that we turned to, to tell us what was happening and what we should do.

Now, thanks to the Internet, instead of a handful of sources of information, we have millions of sources of information across websites and social media.

Inside this context, the challenge is to find people we can turn to as trusted sources of knowledge and information. These are our thought leaders.

Three Trends driving Thought Leadership

Summary of Three Trends driving Thought Leadership

To summarize, being a thought leader reflects three big trends

  1. Most of us do knowledge work and that knowledge must be sourced from somewhere and someone
  2. Most leaders are so heavily focused on getting things done, they don’t have time to think about innovation and new opportunities. This is where thought leaders can help.
  3. In the world of social media, we need reliable sources of ideas from people with authority. These are the thought leaders.

Meaning: What is a Thought Leader?

Thought Leader Meaning: What does it mean to be a thought leader?

More specifically, how do you become a thought leader – what actions would you take?

As per our previous definition of ‘leading with ideas’, let’s look at those two parts.

Becoming a Leader

Let’s start with leadership. There are two pieces here. 

Warren Bennis in his classic book, On Becoming A Leader, suggests that leadership begins when we set out to achieve something. We say ‘I’m going to make this happen’. That’s the first step.

The second step occurs when people are curious or inspired by the actions that we take such that they want to follow us in some way. This might be to join us on our quest, to watch us on social media or to try their own version of what we’re doing.

This gives us two actions:

  1. Set out to achieve something
  2. Have people follow in some way

In this post, we can see these two actions in play. I’ve set out to share my thoughts on thought leadership and you’re following along by reading it.

Sharing Thoughts and Ideas

Now, let’s look at the thoughts or ideas side of things. There are two pieces here also.

During our day-to-day life, we have lots of experiences. By themselves, they are just that – things that happen to us. To be a thought leader we need to translate what happens to us into some meaning and learning for other people.

The two steps here are to:

  1. Design or arrange our thoughts in a way that they may be valuable to others – turn your insights into IP.
  2. Share your thoughts so others can engage with them.

In this post, I’ve arranged my thoughts into this diagram to make it easier for you to grasp the key concepts. Plus, I’ve shared this here on my blog and on YouTube so you can engage with it.

The Four Actions of a Thought Leader

Thus, the four actions of a thought leader that explain what it means to be a thought leader based on how you become one.

Summary: Thought Leadership Meaning 

Let’s wrap up what we’ve covered here.

A Thought Leader is someone we listen to for their thoughts and ideas.

Three trends driving the rise of the Thought Leader are:

  1. A shift from physical work to knowledge work
  2. The need for leadership around the latest thinking
  3. A demand for reliable sources of knowledge in an era of social media.

Thought Leader Meaning and what it means to be a Thought Leader is based on four actions:

  1. Achieve – Leaders set out to make something happen
  2. Follow – Allow people to join in your quest
  3. Design – Arrange your thoughts so others can learn from them
  4. Share – Make what you have learnt available for others

Is being a Thought Leader good for your career or business? 

Cal Newport - Deep WorkNow to answer our big question: Is being a thought leader good for your career or business?

One of the thought leaders I follow is Cal Newport.  He’s written several books that I love and one of his books I selected as my book of the year in 2016. It’s called Deep Work.

Essentially, Cal splits work in two – shallow work and deep work.

  • Shallow work is the kind of work that most of us do without a lot of concentration and thinking. It’s emails, meetings and logistical tasks.
  • Deep Work is thinking intensely on issues that matter. This includes strategic thinking, coming up with fresh ideas and learning new skills. Deep work is valuable because it can make a big difference. Also, so few people actually do it. This is the work that a Thought Leader would do.

Being a thought leader is good for your career or business provided you do two things.

  1. You do deep work thinking about important issues.
  2. You share what you know with others

To be successful as an expert in business it’s not just what you know that makes you an expert or a thought leader, it’s who knows that you know.

More on Thought Leadership Meaning

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2 Responses to Thought Leadership Meaning and Definition

  1. Lisa Carlin August 31, 2021 at 9:49 am #

    Well done Geoff on another great article.

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