A thought leader can refer to an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. The term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz & Co magazine Strategy & Business, and used to designate interview subjects for that magazine who had business ideas which merited attention.
Author and New York Times columnist David Brooks, generally considered a thought leader himself, mocked the lifecycle of the role in a sarcastic column entitled "The Thought Leader," published in December 2013.
The term is sometimes used to characterize leaders of service clubs, officers of veterans' organizations, of civic organizations, of women's clubs, lodges, regional officials and insurance executives.
More generally, the concept of thought leadership is frequently used in both consulting firms and technology firms as a way of reframing issues or topics and as a means of educating customers, potential customers and other stakeholders about new ways of looking at or solving a problem. In this type of use, the objective is less to establish an individual as a thought leader, but rather lay claim to innovative thinking as a marketing tool. Thought leadership is often described as a way of increasing demand for a product or service (often referred to demand creation). High tech firms will often publish white papers with analysis of economic benefits of the product as a way of educating customers. This is a different use of white papers than technical white papers that provide additional technical background. Consulting firms frequently own publications, e.g. The McKinsey Quarterly, A.T. Kearney Executive Agenda, Booz & Co Strategy and Business (now being acquired by PriceWaterhouseCoopers), or Deloitte Review  where they publish the results of research, new management models and examples of the use of consulting methodologies.
- "What Is A Thought Leader?". Forbes. 2012-03-16. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- Kurtzman, J. (2010) Common Purpose: How Great Leaders Get Organisations to Achieve the Extraordinary, ISBN 978-0-470-49009-9
- David Brooks, "The Thought Leader", The New York Times, December 17, 2013.
- Cheryl Pass "‘Thought Leaders’: Orwell’s 1984 Moves To The 21st Century", Freedom Outpost, October 11, 2012
- Carey McWilliams (1951) "Government by Whitaker and Baxter II", The Nation, page 367, April 21
- Scott Cutlip (1994) The Unseen Power, page 607
- "McKinsey Quarterly | McKinsey & Company". Mckinsey.com. 2013-10-06. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- "Executive Agenda ® - A.T. Kearney". Atkearney.com. 2011-03-11. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- Ludwig, Helmuth (2014-02-11). "strategy+business: international business strategy news articles and award-winning analysis". Strategy-business.com. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- "Deloitte Review - A semiannual publication for business leaders". Deloitte.com. Retrieved 2014-02-15.