21 Definitions of Thought Leadership

Dalai LamaJust like the 72 marketing definitions that Heidi Cohen wrote about, depending on who you ask, thought leadership has many definitions too. Considered another marketing buzzword, I miraculously found 21 different definitions for it.

Every marketer and PR professional define it differently. Joel Kurtzma, then Editor-in-Chief of Strategy + Business magazine coined the term in 1994 saying that “thought leadership is about furthering a discussion that leads to action.” And here are some others who have defined it.

  1. Wikipedia:Thought leader is business jargon for an entity that is recognized by peers for having innovative ideas.
  2. Andrew Lark: Thought leadership is the perceived advantage a company achieves in the minds of its stakeholders in relation to a theme or topic that is of central importance to its business. Thought leadership is a perishable perceptual grant by your stakeholders.
  3. B2B Marketing Insider Michael Brenner: To me, Thought Leadership is all about having the answers to the biggest questions on the minds of your buyers. It can also include your unique perspective on hot topics relevant for your customers. The key here is that the agenda is set by your audience. They determine what is important. It can be difficult to give up this control over to your buyers. But the fact is that they already have the control. And we can all benefit when we allow our audience to set the agenda and then just go with it.
  4. – ‘Thought Leadership is establishing a relationship with and delivering something of value to your stakeholders and customers that aligns with your brand/company value. In the process you go well beyond merely selling a product or service and establish your brand /company as the expert in that field and differentiate yourself from your competitors.’
  5. Lance Longwell (Dir. of Public Relations at Siemens Medical): Thought Leadership is the buzzword du jour for “expert.”
  6. Forbes:  They have 2 definitions on what a thought leader is: 1) A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise. 2) A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.
  7. Shel Israel: A thought leader is someone who looks at the future and sets a course for it that others will follow. Thought leaders look at existing best practices then come up with better practices. They foment change, often causing great disruption.
  8. Jeanine Moss: Thought Leadership is the ability to aggregate followers around ideas to educate, influence and inspire.
  9. Elise Bauer:“…a distinguishing characteristic of a thought leader is the recognition from the outside world that the company deeply understands its business, the needs of its customers, and the broader marketplace in which it operates.”
  10. The Gartner Group:“The giving—for free or at a nominal charge—of information or advice that a client will value so as to create awareness of the outcome that a company’s product or service can deliver, in order to position and differentiate that offering and stimulate demand for it.”
  11. SRC Associates: “The provision of valuable and differentiated insights to targeted audiences that creates a position of leadership perception for the delivering firm with the view of strengthening client relationships over the medium to long term”
  12. Tom Paul, COO Pop-Art: To be a company that exemplifies thought leadership, you need to have an idea engine, a concept forge, AS WELL AS an outward-leaning communication stance combined with a desire to raise the playing field – a capability to not only learn new things, to not only discover them for the first time, but to educate others – selflessly.
  13. Thought leadership is a business jargon for an entity that is recognized for having innovative ideas
  14. Strategic America: Thought leadership is rich content. Expertise. Esteem. In-depth knowledge of specific areas of one’s business operation. And the ability to interpret  for others. It is the basis of innovative change.
  15. Chris Koch: Thought leadership is a way to build a relationship with prospects based on knowledge—not on products and services.
  16. TechCrunch: (on being a thought leader) someone who notices things so big and so obvious that everyone else manages to overlook them.
  17. John le Cras & Associates: Thought leadership is not a communications function – it has to come from the core of the business and is driven by the type of people who work in your company, the kind of culture you create and your willingness to try and to fail.
  18. Medical Dictionary at A physician who is respected by his peers or is capable of influencing the way in which they practice medicine and—most importantly to the drug companies that coined the term—the proprietary drugs they prescribe
  19. Scott Ginsberg: A trusted source who moves people with innovative ideas.
  20. A thought leader is someone who listens to other people and hears their ideas. Thought leaders notice when the same ideas pop up over and over again. Thought leaders notice things that other people keep talking about but never seem to do anything about. Thought leaders speak up.
  21. Galen DeYoung: “perceived experts that companies want to hire.”

While the definitions of thought leadership and thought leader vary from institution and job role, the basic concept is the same: to be that go-to person that journalists want to quote and companies want to hire.

Which of these definitions of thought leadership resonates with you the most? Please feel free to add your own definition of thought leadership in the comment section below.

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About Tracy Sestili

Tracy Sestili is CEO and Chief blogger at Social Strand Media. She is also the author of Taking Your Brand from the Bench to the Playing Field -- Social Media Fundamentals for Business.


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