What’s wrong with ‘thought leadership’ besides that everyone’s doing a lot of it?

If you Google “thought leadership,” you’ll find no shortage of contributed articles and blogs by PR and marketing professionals. This appears to be the new way to say “executive visibility” program.

I think there’s a danger in the new term. Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that it’s PR jargon — that is, a term not found outside PR circles. And let’s also set aside for a moment that it makes journalists roll their eyes when PR people make the mistake of using it in their media pitches.

The danger comes from the implied absence of responsibility for the work it requires. If an executive is being made more visible — “executive visibility” — the executive knows that he or she is the one whose opinions are required. By contrast, if an agency is hired for a “thought leadership PR campaign,” the executive is off the hook for developing content.

The reality is that non-experts — smart people, nice people, honest people — are doing their best to coax engaging “thought leadership” out of their own personal reading for an executive to “own,” as PR people like to say — as in “own the conversation on X” as a way to “stand out from the noise” in a “crowded market.”

PR friends, you recognize your own vocabulary here, don’t you!  Probably every agency uses these terms. As a consultant, I’ve heard them a lot over many years no matter where I’ve worked.

The idea behind thought leadership is good, of course. It’s a way for a company to improve its credibility through the expertise of its executives. Nowadays, since so many online publications are hungry for contributed articles — or “bylines,” as PR people like to say — a thought leadership campaign depends heavily on ghostwritten articles submitted by PR people.

The executive has to sign off on the article and may sometimes contribute content. And some executives do create their own content. But increasingly, these kinds of articles are being developed without the executive’s help. Or certainly with too little help. A denotatively accurate term might be “contributed article” campaign — not “thought leadership.”

This kind of program also includes networking, speaking engagements and extemporaneous commentary on breaking news. But the rise of editorial space available for contributed articles is partly what’s driving overuse of the newer term.

Below you’ll find advice both for executives and for PR teams, some from me but most of it culled from my estimated eight hours of reading on the subject, just for the sake of this one blog post.

At the very bottom of this post are more resources for you, including lists of luminaries, quotes, books and the blogs I liked best on this topic. To everyone’s credit, many strive to delineate thought leadership from executive visibility, like this post by Peter Verrengia of FleishmanHillard, who says it’s “one level up” from expertise and “two levels up” from personal narrative.

Verrengia says a thought leader spurs further conversation that drives the entire industry forward. That’s my paraphrase; here’s his detailed explanation. Especially note No. 3 in the sidebar on the left.

But first, let me go back to the notion of jargon and journalists’ reaction.

The problem with jargon is that insiders forget that outsiders won’t be able to catch their intended meaning.

Newer PR pros lack the experience needed for fleshing out such a program, yet experienced pros throw the term around as if everyone understands it. (If this applies to you, see the notes below, especially those on Denise Broussard’s and Amelia Keiser’s offerings.)

How journalists think

Journalists don’t use the term at all. So it’s definitely wise to leave it out of your pitches. Journalists use words like “source,” “resource”  and “expert in the field.” They look for “third-party commentary” and “industry observers” who can help their readers “interpret” events.

That’s how journalists talk. For them, there’s no hierarchy of humans whose thoughts matter more than others’. If a source is close to the topic and can help interpret information for a wider audience with insight and accuracy, he or she is in. Job title and fame matter less than quality of contribution and nearness to topic.

Journalists are looking for someone who will say what isn’t already being said elsewhere. If a body of thought is common, he or she will paraphrase it and perhaps quote someone who says it concisely and with color. If a body of thought is unexpected, contrarian or counterintuitive — and appears to have merit — that’s what will fit the journalist’s definition of news.

(I’m talking about real journalism, not click bate, which we all know strives to shock or tease rather than illuminate.)

If a journalist is writing about an unusual point of view, he or she will use it to facilitate a broader debate. There will be many voices in the story. By contrast, in a contributed article by an executive, the “unique POV” — as PR people like to say — can stand alone and should be backed by evidence, argument and anecdotes. This is another reason PR people like contributed articles — the exec can own the whole story, without sharing space with competitors.

What makes a thought leader

This leads back to what real “thought leadership” would be.

  • Why would an editor say yes to a particular contributed article?
  • Why would a journalist say yes to an interview with a so-called thought leader?
  • Why would conference attendees flock to one person’s talk or panel discussion and not another’s?

Same reason: to serve the audience.

People will gather, tune in or lean in because they expect to be better off in their own lives for having heard the person’s thought. So a thought leader would have to be sharing content that leaves people better off in their own lives.

The content should be prescient (or at least insightful if not far-sighted) and relevant to aims beyond those of the company itself.

This post, by Michael Brenner of Marketing Insider Group, was the only one I found that advised leaders to be of service, first and foremost.

Personally, if I force myself to imagine who a “thought leader” might be, I think first of Warren Buffet. People want to know what he thinks because they suspect they will be better off in their own lives for knowing it.

Then I think of dead people: Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Leo Tolstoy and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda, I think of Hamilton — both thought leaders! In technology, I think of Peter Thiel, Reed Hastings and Andrew Ng. In media, I think of Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey.

In each case there’s a depth of hard work and a rejection of the standards of the day.

This is why I’m bothered by an unsavory falseness in the overuse of the term thought leadership. If a PR team of 20-somethings who haven’t spent even one day in the client’s field are expected to develop most of the content for a “thought leadership” program, good luck with that. They may do good work — even very good work! — but just think how much better it would be if the executive made himself or herself more available to them as they developed that content.

If you’re an executive, you probably stopped reading this a while ago, but if you’re still here, my advice would be this:

  1. Let your PR team ask you more questions than you’re used to, and more frequently.
  2. Give your PR team access to specific business goals, both short- and long-term, including specific business metrics and categories.
  3. Take their advice to you on:
  • Talking about the direction of industry and society, not your company
  • Identifying beliefs and actions on the part of others that would accelerate positive change
  • Finding what you can say that no one else could with as much validity and verve (or, just plain answer the question asked of you, in a way that puts the needs of the audience first)


Now for the excerpts and links I found that I particularly liked. I’ve arranged them in categories.

Who is a luminary?

  1. Here’s a list of thought leaders, as selected by Forbes in 2017. It includes Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who wrote “The Innovator’s Dilemma” (1997). His name comes up a lot.
  2. Here’s a list specifically for Silicon Valley. It focuses on famously wealthy people, some of whom I would not consider thought leaders because they come across to me as too self-serving. If you’re in tech, you’ll know these names.
  3. For 2018, here are the top books recommended by “The Startup” section of the blog host “Medium.” These authors could be considered thought leaders and these books their leading thoughts.
  4. Thinkers50 is a list of the world’s top “management thinkers.” It comes out every other year, most recently in 2017.
  5. This is probably my favorite list, from Robert Resiss, author of “The Transformative CEO.” He interviewed 750 CEOs and for this Forbes article chose the top 10 who “truly transformed business through technology.”

Sound bites that are being repeated

  1. Here’s a selection of inspiring quotes from tech leaders from consulting firm Antea Group.
  2. Here’s a broader range of inspiring quotes including Steve Jobs, Yoda, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt and Michael Jordan. This is from Bernard Marr & Inc., a consulting company.
  3. From software company PageFreezer Technologies, here are inspiring quotes by technology executives including Ginni Rometty of IBM and Marc Benioff of Salesforce, who both turn up a lot on lists of tech luminaries.

Defining a thought leader

In a contributed article in Inc. magazine, a marketing executive admonishes other execs to take “thought leader” out of their bios, saying it’s a label that can be conferred only by third parties, never to be used about oneself. He said, in less direct terms, that if you have to call yourself one, you probably aren’t one. For Sangram Vajre’s article, click here.

In Business News Daily, journalist Nicole Fallon interviews a number of people, including some who say a thought leader “recognizes trends before they happen and applies that insight to achieve actual business results” and is willing to “speculate.”

More on how to be one

“Get comfortable with controversy and being the lone voice,” says a detailed how-to by marketer Geri Stengel in Forbes.

By contrast, the Michael Brenner post from above cautions against getting stuck in the “unique point-of-view trap.” Unique is good but may not always be needed, he says. Most of all, focus on answering the audience’s question, he writes.

This Business Insider list includes photos on how to dress like these 19 tech executives. The No. 1 spot went to Bozoma Saint John, a former Apple exec now at Uber.

Where to be one

This bulldog Reporter story lists the most influential places to send your luminaries. Great job, as always, Bulldog Reporter! I’m a fan.

How to create a program

I was gratified to see a Burson-Marstellar exec use the term “executive visibility” in this PRWEEK how-to. Alan Sexton helpfully explains what’s new and different about the terrain for applying this time-tested PR approach.

This LinkedIn post by Wendy Moro of Focal Point Communications is full of really good advice. She names Arianna Huffington, Elon Musk, Ari Emanuel, Ursula Burns, John Chambers and Mellody Hobson, to name a few). She writes:

“They are visionaries and are bold in their discussions and predictions. They offer personal anecdotal stories and are not afraid to create controversy. Audiences remember and retell stories. Storytelling is critical in any discussion or presentation.”

Here’s the best post I found for breaking down programmatic elements, so the entire PR team can see all that’s involved. Denise Broussard, a consultant who also lectures at Stanford Business School, wrote a 272-page book on this subject, Ready to Be a Thought Leader?” (2014). She’s CEO of Thought Leadership Lab. When I looked, it had a 4+ star average rating from 73 reviewers on Amazon.

Experts who agree the term is overused

Here’s the most comprehensive post I found. It gives the term’s first use (1887), quotes Wikipedia, lists examples, offers a lot of how-to advice and even describes current backlash.

“… this term may be overused. And an over-saturation of self-proclaimed “thought leaders” (with nothing to back up that title) means that many people are weary of the term. …Forbes eventually bestowed the title of ‘most annoying business slang’ in 2013.”

This same post — by Amelia Keiser, Content Marketing Manager of reputational specialist BrandYourself.com — explains from different vantage points and cites “three stages”as described by Robert Rose of the Content Marketing Institute, co-host of the “This Old Marketing” podcast with Joe Pulizzi.

Her entire post is worth checking out if you want a good primer.

Similarly, as Christian Pinkston, founder of an eponymous agency, put it in a PR News Group article, “Virtually everyone outside the communications field hates the term. Editors and producers see it as a symbol of all that’s wrong with public relations. Even many in the communications industry have grown weary of the term, because it’s overused and gets slapped on picayune efforts that are neither thoughtful nor leading.”

His post offers five succinct tips that I heartily agree with.

Word, Mr. Pinkston!


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