"Thought Leaders" seem to be everywhere these days..What is a thought leader and what does thought leadership mean in today’s business world? In my opinion a thought leader is not someone who simply restates someone else’s views and positions. From my perspective a thought leader is someone who has their own views and positions that largely differ from established norms and conventions. Moreover, the true litmus test of a thought leader is when their unique ideas are implemented in the marketplace they tend to create disruptive innovation, and often change the way we view the world. In the text that follows I’ll examine the subject of thought leadership in an attempt to separate fact from fiction…

It is certainly much easier to look back in time at world leaders, Nobel laureates, religious scholars, philosophers, and captains of industry to identify historical thought leaders than it is to identify today’s visionaries. This is simply due to the fact that thought leadership was once a term reserved for a limited few. Regrettably the label of thought leader has evolved to become a self-bestowed title for anyone who has something to say or promote, often without regard for qualitative issues. Some would say that the term thought leader, once synonymous with futurist and innovator, is more closely aligned with snake-oil salesman today. Don’t get me wrong, true thought leaders still exist; they are just much harder to spot these days.

Let me begin by stating that authentic thought leaders, the real deals, are not created via great marketing and PR alone. While they are oft published, quite outspoken, and many times represented by marvelous publicists, they are not merely contrived, self-promoted legends in their own minds. Rather true thought leaders are born out of real-world successes, achievements, and contributions that have been recognized by their peers and competitors alike. Their work is widely regarded as being innovative, disruptive and market altering. They are not the posers, but the players…They are not spin masters trying to make it, but are the undisputed market leaders that have already arrived.

It is important to draw a distinction between personal or corporate branding and thought leadership. While thought leaders often become well recognized brands, there are many well crafted brands that have messaged thought leadership where none exists. Don’t allow yourself to get caught-up in the spin and hype associated with great marketers who will gladly accept compensation, but will leave you woefully disappointed when it comes to living-up to their billing. Look for real results based upon market leadership and not just brand leadership alone.

The best example I can give you about discerning the difference between brand leaders and thought leaders is that of large consulting companies. I would challenge the brand perception that IBM or Accenture are the true thought leaders in their sector. I would submit that you will find the true innovation and thought leadership taking place at the smaller consultancies.

In fact I’ll go so far as to say that there is almost an inverse relationship between size and thought leadership in that the bigger a company is, the less likely they are to be innovators. Rather it is those firms chasing the big brands, who must innovate to survive, that often employ today’s thought leaders. Over the course of my career I have walked into many businesses that were branded as market leaders that hadn’t come up with a new idea for years. The fact of the matter is that the more institutional a firm becomes the harder it is to maintain an entrepreneurial edge driven by a culture of innovation.

I recently read an article by Fiona Czerniawska entitled “Thought Leadership: Are You Making It or Faking It?” and while finding it to be quite an interesting read, my perspective although similar to hers in many respects still differs substantially…Fiona’s article dissects the subject of thought leadership as it applies to large consulting firms and this is where we differ. While she calls many current practices into question, I tend to go much further in that my belief is that big consulting firms are the farthest thing from thought leaders. The legions of twenty and thirty-something consultants employed by McKinsey, Bain, Booz Allen Hamilton etc. haven’t lived long enough to even form their own thoughts much less become thought leaders…

As Fiona so accurately points out, the large consulting firms often label themselves as thought leaders (strike one…), repurpose generic materials across industries and sectors and spin “old” as “innovative” (can you say best practices? strike two…) and they have regrettably become pimps of mass merchandised mediocrity (strike three…).

As noted above, espousing “best practices” propaganda has nothing to do with thought leadership, but has everything to do with creating mediocrity (see “The Downside of Best Practices”). What I have witnessed time and again is that these purported thought leaders have in reality weakened businesses, damaged brands, and commoditized competitive advantages for many entities, which ultimately adversely impacts their profitability and sustainability. I know my perspective may appear jaded, but I’m so tired of reading the drivel of people that don’t have anything unique to say, who have been deemed as brilliant up-and-comers that I just want to scream…

I have nothing against the term thought leader and am honored when I’ve been referred to as such. However it is my opinion the label should be reserved as an honor to be given to a few, and not a title to be adopted by the masses. Dilution has the opposite effect of scarcity in that it diminishes value. Can you remember when the title of Vice President or Managing Director actually meant something? I can…

Bottom line…judge people on their actions and results, not their rhetoric. Don’t accept conventional wisdom as gospel unless you can validate proof of concept, and then only accept it if you can innovate with it, or around it. Challenge everything in business by looking to improve upon the status quo and differentiate yourself from your competition. I don’t advise my clients to adopt the practices of their peers, but rather to be disruptive with their innovation such that they create or widen market gaps between themselves and their peers.

Author's Bio: 

Mike Myatt, is a Top CEO Coach and author of "Leadership Matters...The CEO Survival Manual". As one of America's top CEO Coaches, Mr. Myatt is a sought after professional advisor known for his refreshing and straight forward approach to business and his tireless efforts in serving his clients. As an executive Mike Myatt has held numerous C-suite positions, as an entrepreneur he has been a principal in 4 successful ventures and as a professional advisor he has worked with clients ranging from successful professionals to Fortune 100 companies.

Some of Mr. Myatt's accomplishments prior to serving as Managing Director and Chief Strategy Officer at N2growth include serving as President and COO of a commercial real estate investment bank, Managing Director of a law firm, Director of Internet Strategy for the country's largest web enablement firm and he founded what is today one of the country’s leading interactive advertising agencies.