“Thought leadership” has become a buzzword today. Individuals and corporations alike are dipping their feet into the ocean that is thought leadership. However, is the meaning of thought leadership really clear? Is it part of Leadership or is it completely different, diverse and dynamic? Let us take a look at different definitions available:
“A thought leader is an individual or a firm that is recognized as an authority in the field and whose expertise is sought”. Thought leaders are considered as well informed, well aware entities that are looked up to for their expertise and opinion.
“A thought leader is someone who looks at the future and sets a course for it that others will follow”. Well, aren’t all leaders visionaries and take initiatives and do things in different ways and have many followers?
“Thought leaders are people with ideas that merit attention” – Don’t we all think that every one of our ideas merit consideration?
Given these definitions, the concept of thought leadership has been nagging me for a very long time. I started reading up about it and discussing it with friends. If a person comes up with a thought or an idea, has a strong conviction about the idea and propagates the idea, has many people believing and following that idea – can he be called a thought leader? If such is the case, even a dictator like Hitler can also be called a thought leader because he had millions believing in his idea of anti-Semitism and following the idea. Was he a thought leader though? That is up for debate.
To me, thought leadership is more than just a different idea, a business tool, having a great following, having conviction or the amount of experience one may have. It is much more dynamic. It is about bringing a positive difference; making a positive impact. It need not necessarily be anything earth shattering. As author and leadership speaker Drew Dudley puts it in his TED Talk ‘Everyday Leadership’, “we have made entire concept of leadership into something about a great idea, changing the world. In this we might have lost those moments of smaller ideas and their essence.”
Thought leadership is an act of visualizing a very creative way of doing business/ finding solutions. It is about conceiving a future and bringing it to fruition in the real world. You need to have good knowledge of the industry, a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t, processes followed and ideas failed- an informed judgment to be made. It takes time and careful study of factors influencing the industry.
A more practical approach to this may be that anyone, irrespective of cadre/ stature, can be a thought leader. The concept need not necessarily be original. If you come up with a new idea, synthesize it, make it relevant and engaging, create a value addition and get the buying for it- may be that is how thought leadership works. For instance, an idea which makes the existing process/ service much simpler and more effective.
I have heard a story that a car manufacturing company came out with a model of a brand-new car with unique features. When it was time to bring it out to the showroom, they found out that it was just a couple of inches more in height than the gate way. Finally, they flattened all the tires and pushed the car out, without any scratches to the car. The idea came from the boy whose task was to fill the air in the tires. This could give a new dimension to how we look at thought leadership.
Some business enterprises consider it a good platform for Brand positioning in the market and critical for success. However, this may not be a simple platform. It may require a holistic approach, a thorough research and planning endeavor may be necessary before considering an idea as unique. Some factors to help may be:
- Be clear about why you want to bring this strategy/ idea – what is the needle movement you want to see with this idea – as Simon Sinek puts it, “People don’t buy because of what you do but because they believe in why you do it”
- Answer how your idea may make a difference – both qualitatively and quantitatively
- Interact with your end user – share ideas – A Design Thinking mindset may help- see, hear and feel what people need
- No ego trips for you – Open your mind to accept criticism – that’s when new ideas pop-up; listen carefully, observe and learn
- Highlight the emotional angle of your idea, if there is one – even in this increasingly business-like environment, it holds its own place
- Above all, if someone has to accept you as a thought leader, you must earn their TRUST
Let us look at some examples which stand out with creative ideas, making an impact on people and life-styles thus making them Thought Leaders:
Ritesh Agarwal – At the age of 21 years, Ritesh conceptualized and formed OYO rooms, whose business model is to tie up with small and medium hotels across India to provide budget accommodation to customers. The organization owns zero physical property yet has a higher valuation than luxury hospital brands in India such as Oberoi or Taj groups.
N R Narayana Murthy – The legendary founder of Indian IT Giant Infosys realized that India can be a great service provider. The result? Infosys, founded in 1981 became the first Indian company to be quoted in NASDAQ in 1999, giving employees stock options to the company and putting the Indian software industry on world map while pioneering many other flourishing companies. Imagine the power of that idea- IT industry has given jobs to 40 lakh people (direct and indirect) and the country earns a foreign exchange of $100 billion.
Dr Satyanarayan Pitroda – popularly known as Sam Pitroda, he is a reputed scientist and the inventor of the Electronic Diary in 1975, instrumental in revolutionizing the Indian Telephone industry. His company, C-dot laid telephone infrastructure across the length and breadth of India. His institution played a key role in training thousands of young engineers who later played key roles in the mobile phones era.
Dr Verghese Kurien – known as “Father of the White Revolution”, formed the first cooperative dairy farming society – Gujarat cooperative milk federation, where the farmers were the major share-holders. He made dairy farming India’s largest self- sustaining industry and largest rural employment provider. His venture paved way for many other states to establish their own milk federations.
Elon Reeve Musk: A global leader whose innovative ideas are on the verge of changing the face of technology and the way we live in future. Tesla, one of his most popular innovations, with fully electric vehicles, is a major step to reduce dependency on fossil fuel and emission of carbon di oxide. His path breaking Space-X aims at giving the experience of commercial space travel at reduced cost and even colonization of Mars – may be one more Noah’s Ark story in the making. The online payment giant PayPal is also Musk’s brain-child, conceived as X.com in 1999 and later merged with Confinity. His inventions come with the hall-mark of superior technological innovation, making life easier for users- be it the idea of Solar city, or electric jet or OpenAI.
Walt Disney: Created the internationally loved brand and characters and captured millions of hearts worldwide. His unique way of entertainment and story- telling through animation enthralled young and old alike. He paved way to numerous animation movies/shows in various countries, making it not only a wholesome entertainment, but also a huge corporate business.
Kerry Packer: Cricket is not the game it once was- the format, the equipment and the entire dynamics of the game have changed greatly in the past few decades. World Series Cricket was essentially about broadcasting rights and media magnet Kerry Packer was instrumental in swinging some important decisions of huge commercial impact. He took business risks, faced opposition from governments while these changes were implemented. World Series Cricket popularized day-night format, played under flood lights with a white ball. Since then the aggressive game, use of microphone effects, and on-screen TV graphics have revolutionized the TV coverage of the game, taking the popularity of the game to new heights
In the future, with ideas such as ‘driverless cars’ taking centre stage, the experience of finding cabs, driving, traffic and driving will be very different – removing the need to haggle with drivers, automatic control over traffic and fewer parking hassles in big cities.
Thought Leadership, therefore, is not just a business strategy or a success story. It has a huge impact on socio-economic structures, marking a difference in life-styles and the well-being of people as illustrated in the above examples. There is primarily a human angle to all these revolutionary ideas.
Whether you use the concept of thought leadership as a marketing tool for your own organization, or as a strategy to better decision making or as a success statement in the industry- “Thought Leadership is not about being known… it is about being known for making a difference”