A Brief History of Thought Leadership

Have you noticed that suddenly everyone is a thought leader? It’s become the latest corporate buzzword. I did a search on my LinkedIn network – 20,102 people that I am connected with have “thought leader” in their description. (But just to put that in perspective, 3,932 had “rock star” in their description and there were five “mythical figures”.) Still, that’s a lot of thought leaders.

Wikipedia tells me that thought leader is “business jargon” – ouch. Where did it come from? And what does it really mean?

The term was first coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the magazine, Strategy & Business, who said that “A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”

Sounds pretty cool. Matt Church popularised the concept in Australia back in 2004 when he founded Thought Leaders, a training company that has since expanded into the US, India, and Europe.

When asked about thought leadership, Matt says that the world is changing, and if you are in the business of being an expert, Google has changed everything. Matt contends that an expert used to be someone who knew stuff. Now anyone with an Internet connection can get more information than they will ever need. This information overload has created three vacuums: meaning, relevance, and engagement. And that, says Matt Church, is what a thought leader needs to provide – meaning, relevance, and engagement.

Of course to be a thought leader you need to do that in a way that builds on the thinking in your field of expertise.

Stephen Covey gives us a great example of this with his Time Management Matrix which maps that which is important against that which is urgent. It’s a model that most of us are familiar with – ‘urgent’ is on one axis and ‘important’ is on the other. Covey uses the model to make the point that we need to spend less time on the urgent, non-important stuff, and give much more priority to the important, non-urgent stuff. It’s a piece of thought leadership that has influenced millions of people, and made tens of millions of dollars.

However it wasn’t an original idea. He quotes Goethe who said “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least” as the source of the idea. Covey took that idea, and made it relevant, engaging, and meaningful. He attributed the source with honour, and through his thought leadership changed the world.

So by all means call yourself a thought leader, but if you do make sure you’re not actually just a thought follower. Go forth and build on the thinking in your domain, provide meaning, relevance, and engagement to your people and make the world a better place.

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