To be a thought leader, one must have leading thoughts

Thought leadership in public affairs circles was all the rage about ten years ago. And then all of a sudden, it wasn’t. Why? Perhaps because, as a former boss of mine often said: “to be a thought leader, one must have thoughts, and they must be leading ones.” But leading thoughts were a very scarce commodity indeed.

10 years on, thought leadership is back. I’ve seen scores of briefs and job descriptions that call for thought leadership. I dug around a bit, and happily, there appears to be less vapid nonsense masquerading as thought leadership than ten years back. My digging also appears to have revealed three categories of thought leadership that are in vogue, and when done well, may very well help organisations build political capital.

  1. Plenty of organisations are providing insight based on their proprietary data. Not self-serving data that shows how important that organisation is, but rather, data the provides insight on behaviour (of customers, patients, energy users etc.) that is politically salient and useful.
  2. We’re seeing lots of smart people within organisations teaming up with external experts to co-create high-quality material that neither party would have been able to create on their own. The concept isn’t especially novel but execution has been spruced up: outputs are often episodic (part of a series rather than ad hoc) and more frequent, and the co-creation process itself has become more dynamic and transparent through digital.  
  3. Last but not least, we’re seeing plenty of organisations building online communities with their closest stakeholders (experts, key customer segments etc.) to think through problems together, policy-related and beyond, and generating substantial outputs collectively. Not too dissimilar to the example above, this concept champions co-creation, but also network building.

(NB: do get in touch if you’re interested in chatting about specific examples of each).

Here’s what’s interesting. Each of the three concepts relies on the input of others, whether data or expertise. Are they really therefore examples of thought leadership? Perhaps thought leadership in 2021 is an anachronism, given that digitalisation gives us immediate access to so much intel and countless communities of experts that no one individual or organisation is likely to have a monopoly on leading thoughts anymore.

In short, nowadays, generating the best ideas, be it on public policy or whatever else, is not about having the smartest people on staff. It demands i) the ability to make sense of data and turn it into something meaningful; ii) identifying and bringing together the smartest minds, facilitating discussion, and managing the outputs. Organisations that are ‘thought leading’ are therefore not necessarily those that have leading thoughts, but those that are best at interpreting data and building networks, and extracting leading thoughts from them.


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