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Businesses need a new definition of thought leadership

As more organisations look to Thought Leadership to share knowledge and enhance their reputations, this timely study by Will Harvey sets out some of the tensions and paradoxes in producing such content and shows how they can play out.

20 January 2021

Thought leadership has become a battleground for organisations in the race for brand profile, market share and client engagement.

Seemingly everywhere thought leaders are striving to grab people’s attention.

Recently, this has been magnified by coronavirus lockdowns, as people simultaneously disconnect from others and spend more time connecting online often with new people in different places.

But there is increasing evidence that the escalation in activity – from webinars, videos, infographics to blogs and articles could actually be undermining brand credibility, particularly if the emphasis is on volume rather than quality.

But is that thought leadership, or just content?

And how can companies ensure that they are engaging in true thought leadership, rather than adding to the noise?

In the beginning

In order to answer this question, we must look back at the inception of thought leadership.

The term became popularised following the publication of Joel Kurtman’s influential book: Thought Leaders: Insights on the Future of Business (John Wiley and Sons Inc, 1997).

Then, thought leadership was associated with a small number of practitioner and academic gurus, from Gary Hamel, the American management consultant, to the late Minoru Makihara, the former Japanese Chief Executive and Chairman of Mitsubishi Corporation.

Some of the early emphasis on thought leadership focused around organisational learning, sharing best practices and helping leaders to apply in their own contexts

The problem now

Since then, thought leadership has moved away from its original purpose to become a catch-all term for pretty much all knowledge-based content activity.

Part of the problem is that it is poorly defined, even in the academic sphere.

Our research found that in both academic and practitioner literature, writers often combine the following elements into thought leadership:

  • Inputs (the resources and conditions required to develop it). They include: expertise, research-led approaches, stakeholders, creation of ideas, insightful ideas, creation and expertise.
  • Processes (the mechanisms through which it can be created and shared). They include: dissemination, sharing knowledge and building relationships.
  • Outcomes (the final form it takes and its effect on end users). They include: results, reputation building, brand awareness, introducing new prospects, differentiation, visibility, brand building and influence.

These different dimensions are separate from the core elements of what thought leadership is – actionable, providing value, solution focused, and from an eminent and trusted source who has authority.

This raises questions around the credibility of material that is claimed to be thought leadership.

While the volume of thought leadership is high, engagement has been low. This is borne out in a survey of 1,200 US businesses by Edelman in 2019, which found that 86% of those surveyed thought that the thought leadership they had consumed was “good, mediocre or poor in quality”.

The consequence for businesses and their brands is that they can be perceived as low quality, inauthentic and potentially irritable because they are distracting customers in unhelpful and intrusive ways. Low quality and high volume content runs the risk of becoming like junk mail that garners little attention and is quickly expunged.

A new definition

This is not to suggest that all content is unhelpful or meaningless. However with greater saturation of information across multiple platforms, quality differentiation is essential to maximise its impact and to stand out from the crowd. It is better to focus on less frequent and higher quality content that connects with your audience than being in the business of high frequency and lower quality content.

By reviewing the literature (both academic and practitioner), we propose a new definition for companies to consider.

“Knowledge from a trusted, eminent and authoritative source that is actionable and provides valuable solutions for stakeholders.”

How we generated this definition is summarised in this table:

Table 1: Building a definition of thought leadership from the literature

Type of thought leadership Inputs Processes Outcomes
Broad themes from the literature
  • Expertise
  • Research-led approaches
  • Stakeholders
  • Creation of ideas
  • Insightful ideas
  • Creation and expertise
  • Dissemination
  • Sharing knowledge
  • Building relationships
  • Results
  • Reputation building
  • Brand awareness
  • Introducing new prospects
  • Differentiation
  • Visibility
  • Brand building
  • Influence
Core elements from the literature
  • Actionable
  • Providing value
  • Solutions
  • Eminence
  • Trusted source
  • Authority
Our definition Knowledge from a trusted, eminent and authoritative source that is actionable and provides valuable solutions for stakeholders.”

What companies can do now

We would suggest that all knowledge-based organisations take a more reflective and thoughtful approach about how they design and present so-called thought leadership activities.

It is about applying the higher standards linked to our definition and focusing on less volume and more distinct thought leadership that will help to deliver on economic and social goals.

One practical starting point for businesses is to ask who you are trying to communicate with and why.

Following this, it is worth asking people within and outside your teams such as marketing and communication colleagues how the message lands for them.

Finally, it is worth taking the time to get feedback from trusted colleagues outside your business.

These three steps all provide opportunities for feedback from different perspectives. You don’t have to and shouldn’t incorporate everything that everyone says, but it will help you to understand how your content lands for others.

Soliciting feedback helps not only in what your content is saying, but also who you should be communicating to and why, and when you should be engaging with them.


Professor Will HarveyProfessor Will Harvey is a Associate Dean (Research and Impact) and Professor of Management in the Department of  Management at the University of Exeter Business School.

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