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 Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first citation for the phrase an 1887 description of Henry Ward Beecher as "one of the great thought-leaders in America." But it was revived or reinvented by marketers in the 1980s; in a 1990 article in the Wall Street Journal Marketing section, Patrick Reilly used the term "thought leader publications" to refer to such magazines as Harper's.
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.
Thought leadership is often used as a way of increasing or creating demand for a product or service. High tech firms often publish white papers with analyses of the economic benefits of their products as a form of marketing. These are distinct from technical white papers. Consulting firms frequently publish house reports, 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.
Specialist agencies now exist to help corporate clients create evidence-based thought leadership, such as Longitude, a 2017 FT1000 high-growth company. In addition, major publishing brands also offer similar services, such as the EIU, Forbes and Wall Street Journal.
A parody on the term was published in 2016 of Chris Kelly on Canadian television's This is That program. In the process of the discussion, imitating TED talks, Kelly elicits responses from the audience that exemplify the effect he describes as the result of applying well-known marketing techniques to achieve the impression of being an erudite speaker.
Criticism of the phrase and concept
The phrase "thought leader" is identified by some writers as an annoying example of business jargon, and appeared in Forbes magazine's 2013 annual "tournament" of "corporate America’s most insufferable" business buzzwords and clichés. Kevin Money and Nuno Da Camara of the John Madejski Centre for Reputation at the University of Reading's Henley Management College write that the nebulous nature of the phrase (the unclear nature of "what is and what is not thought leadership") contributes to its reputation among cynics as "meaningless management speak." Some writers, such as Harvard Business Review contributor Dorie Clark, have defended the phrase, while agreeing "that it is very icky when people call themselves thought leaders because that sounds a little bit egomaniacal."
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- TLG index of thought leaders
- Opinion leadership
- Creative class
- Faith Popcorn
- Futures studies
- Irma Wyman
- "What Is A Thought Leader?". Forbes. 2012-03-16. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- Patrick Reilly, "'Thought' Magazines Weather Ad Storms." Wall Street Journal, Nov. 9, 1990.
- 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.
- "The FT 1000: Europe's fastest-growing companies". ig.ft.com. Retrieved 2017-05-16.
- Wendy Webb, Attention Thought Leaders and Evangelists: Your Business Jargon Is Annoying, National Federation of Independent Business (December 3, 2015).
- Brett Nelson, Business Jargon Bracketology: Which Annoying Corporate Buzzword, Cliché Or Euphemism Will Win Forbes' NCAA-Style Tourney? Vote Now!, Forbes (February 5, 2015).
- Kevin Money & Nuno Da Camara, Comment: Is thought leadership a cutting edge strategy or meaningless management speak?, Financial Times (December 2, 2007).
- Why the Term "Thought Leader" Isn't Gross, Harvard Business Review Ideacast (Dorie Clark interview by Sarah Green Carmichael) (October 1, 2015).
- David Brooks, "The Thought Leader", The New York Times, December 17, 2013.