A thought leader is an individual or firm ascribed the quality of 'thought leadership'. Thought leadership is influencing a narrative by understanding what needs to be done. A thought leader can be recognized as an authority in a specific field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded, that can be an expert, a historical figure, or a 'wise person' with worldly impact.
From the perspective of a thought leader as the 'go-to-expert', being a thought leader means to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of the target audience on a particular topic. Thought leaders are commonly asked to speak at public events, conferences, or webinars to share their insight with a relevant audience. 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 go-to-expert perspective on thought leadership is expressed by Joel Kurtzman (1994), editor-in-chief of the magazine Strategy & Business, who said that "A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights."
In the previous decade, the term was revived and re-engineered by marketers. Thought leadership is important for both consumer and B2B companies. Thought leaders need to inspire consumers to act and to take the next step in their journey.
Influencing a narrative by understanding what needs to be done—thought leadership—refers in business and marketing 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 & Business, or Deloitte Review where they publish the results of research, new management models, and examples of the use of consulting methodologies.
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." New York Times columnist David Brooks mocked the lifecycle of the role in a satirical column entitled "The Thought Leader," published in December 2013.
A parody on the term was published in 2016 by 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.
- Patrick Reilly, "'Thought' Magazines Weather Ad Storms." Wall Street Journal, Nov. 9, 1990
- John Hall, Forbes, 2019-11-03
- Michael Brenner on May 23, 2019 in Content Marketing
- "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.
- 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.