A thought leader is 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." The term had earlier (1876) been applied to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was said to manifest "the wizard power of a thought-leader."
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.  In the previous decade the term was revived and reengineered by marketers to emphasize an intangible quality of products and brands.
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.
Despite being conceived as a laudatory description, the idea of thought leadership is seen to be inherently contradictory. Since the Enlightenment thinking has been taken to an autonomous activity, relying on logic and not on external authority. Max Weber noted in his studies on vocation that scholars and experts are not necessarily good leaders. Recently (2017) political scientist Daniel W. Drezner contrasted the thought leader to the public intellectual. According to his view intellectuals cultivate opposing views and ambiguities while thought leaders "develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot".
Business and marketing
In business and marketing 'thought leadership' usually refers to a potentially winning strategy. It is seen 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, Strategy&'s Strategy and Business, 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.
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."
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.
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- "What Is A Thought Leader?". Forbes. 2012-03-16. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- "The Theistic Annual for 1876". 1876. p. 38. Retrieved 2018-05-11.
- 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
- Weber, Max (2004). Science as a Vocation, in The Vocation Lectures, tr. by Rodney LIvingstone, and Edited by David Owen and Tracy Strong (Illinois: Hackett Books).
- Drezner, Daniel W. (2017). The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190264604.
- "McKinsey Quarterly | McKinsey & Company". Mckinsey.com. 2013-10-06. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- "Executive Agenda ® - A.T. Kearney". Atkearney.com. 2011-03-11. Archived from the original on 2014-02-19. 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.
- Brosseau, Denise (2014), Ready to Be a Thought Leader? (Wiley/Jossey-Bass)
- Karin Frick, Detlef Guertler, Peter A. Gloor, (2013), Coolhunting for the World's Thought Leaders, Presented at COINs13 Conference, Chile, 2013 arXiv
- Acharya, Nupur (2011-06-20). "Infosys, Tata Brands Beat Google and Apple". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2012-01-11.
- Myslewski, Rik (November 25, 2009). "Apple tops Google as UK 'Thought Leader'". The Register.