There are many different ways to observe the concept of thought leadership in practice; thought leaders can be an innovative person, a brilliant executive, a community or spiritual leader. However, the objective here is to understand the employment of thought leadership by organizations as an instrument to develop strategic positioning to differentiate and lead in the industry.
It is important to notice that thought leadership is something different from traditional leadership (Van Halderen, 2010). Traditional leadership is based on management such as coaching and inspiring, while thought leadership is about communication and persuasion. It is about message framing, telling stories and presenting logical argumentation. The goal for a traditional leader is that of followers acting in line with the leader’s objectives. A thought leader’s ultimate goal is to be a trusted partner whose ideas are widely accepted and then influence its environment.
From that standpoint, the essence of thought leadership in business is intentionally to act as a catalyst which inspires change, by promoting a vision of a better or at least new way to see or do things and positioning the company as the expert in the field. By successfully acting as “agents of change”, the organization is achieving differentiation, gaining “share of voice” and building collaborative relationships with key stakeholders, who will perceive the company as a market leader and a trusted source.
Organizations who adopt thought leadership as their strategic positioning, are seeking to “build their brand, to develop brand awareness, to build a unique platform for competitive differentiation, to build deeper relationships with customers, to be “heard above all the ‘noise’ in the marketplace” or to get important stakeholders on board with a company’s strategic plans” (Kettler and Van Halderen, 2011:3).
Analyzing the data provided by the Thought Leadership Index – research whose data provides evidence concerning the relevance of thought leadership strategy for reputation – it is possible to conclude that by adopting a role of thought leader, the company is also enhancing its overall reputation and consequently driving sales. After comparing year after year the index results with other reputation rankings, the conclusion is that “there is a significant correlation between brands that have achieved status as the most admired thought leaders and those brands that enjoy a strong reputation”.
Considering the definition of Kettler and Van Halderen (2011), where thought leadership is described as “the action of introducing and promoting convention-breaking ideas that cause people to change how they think about marketplace or societal issues” we can conclude that it’s imperative for the company to be prepared to articulate its position inside and outside the organization through a structured communication plan.
In this sense, in order create a strategy of thought leadership it is first necessary to understand some key pillars:
- The first important concept is the “original vision” that the company be presenting as a solution for an issue, an innovative proposal or a trend to be followed. As pointed out by Kettler and Van Halderen (2011) this “novelty” component is important because it acts as “a schema-cracking catalyst, garnering attention and attracting stakeholders”
The ‘original vision’ is usually provided by a company’s intellectual capital, research or know-how and later developed by the organization, who will build a “position of expertise” around it. Even when the “original vision” is not completely new, when well-structured and fluently and coherently articulated by the company, it can turn into a compelling thought leadership flag.
The second concept is “credibility” which has a fundamental role in the thought leadership process. In a virtue-circle, the company needs to gain stakeholders’ trust to have its new idea or view accepted and adopted; on the other hand the leadership position itself leads to trust and status.
- Therefore, when a company decides to adopt thought leadership as a competitive strategy, it has to ensure that the chosen ‘novel point of view’ will resonate with key stakeholders – in order to generate trust, acceptance and eventually differentiation – and ensure that this “view” fits the company’s expertise and culture and can be properly articulated by the organization.
- The third concept involves the structured articulation of the vision in the market and society. In order to communicate its point of view the company needs to present a clear proposition and adopt an objective approach in communication, which should reinforce the social relevance and the contribution of the proposed change to industry or society. In addition, it emphasizes the authenticity of its arguments and the pioneering aspect of the initiative.
In order to build a structures articulation plan it’s important to consider that communication has an important role for the “original vision” acceptance and stakeholder engagement:
- In order to have their viewpoint validated and consequently more easily accepted by key stakeholders, thought leaders need to broadly share relevant information and factual materials – such as cases studies, white papers, researches and reports published by media.
- Occasionally, this also includes the sponsoring of ‘proof of concepts’ initiatives, such as pilot projects, research and debates which will legitimatize the original vision. That way, the organization can reach a position of ‘reference company in the industry’ and become the opinion source for media.
- Engagement also means collaboration, which requires the development of a strong and interactive network. To build a more comprehensive vision, and to increase acceptance and trust around the novel point of view, it is important to foster discussion and encourage involvement of stakeholders around the theme. By promoting collaboration through forums, conferences, workshops and studies about the subject matter, the thought leader guarantees access to relevant information and insights to be incorporated in its own platform and increases its power of influence and credibility.
- Finally, the best way to articulate a new point of view is by demonstrating coherence between speech and behavior, showing commitment and integrity by acting in line with the public vision endorsed. That’s why thought leadership should be part of the organization’s culture and be aligned to the values of the organization; it depends mostly on internal stakeholders’ engagement and how it is articulated internally to reflect the correct view expressed externally.
In summary, thought leadership enhances a good reputation but its benefits go beyond it, be perceived as a thought leader also increases the organization’s power of influence. Companies perceived as thought leaders are also perceive as:
- trusted advisors by governments and regulators, which increases the organization’s influence in the decision-making process
- role models by industry, which increases the organization’s status and ability to get collaboration
- reference companies in the industry by opinion leaders, which strengthen the organization’s opinion and position
- influential partners to be associated with by suppliers, strategic partners, associations and shareholders which generate business opportunities