Thursday, November 14, 2013

Who wants to be a thought leader?

In over a decade as a communications professional, I can’t remember having dealt with an organization that does not list thought leadership as one of its communications objectives, if not the primary one. It makes me wonder that if every company becomes a thought leader, then we would soon be entering the most ‘divine’ phase in corporate history. However, the state of the global economy and the unenviable balance sheets of many corporates, paints a rather grim picture, quite the opposite of what we would expect from a world filled with self-proclaimed thought leaders.

In a study by Forbes magazine conducted in 2010 of 1,452 diverse professionals with a variety of industries ranging from investment advisors to attorneys and from accountants to life coaches and security specialists, 78% of them wanted to be thought leaders. However, only about 5% say they achieved this goal. Similar results have been seen time and again.

In order to understand this phenomenon, let’s start by trying to define the phrase. Forbes, in an article titled, ‘What is a Thought Leader?’ gave the following definition from a business perspective -

A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.

So, the moot point is that an individual, firm or organization being a thought leader is determined by how others (its clients, prospects, employees etc.) perceive it based on its expertise and/or benefits to the audience. One can become a business leader by showcasing better financial results but the approach does not apply to thought leadership.

Many companies look at thought leadership as the icing on the cake. Failure to understand this aspect is the crux of the problem owing to which most organizations would never be perceived as thought leaders no matter how much they spend on the so-called ‘thought leadership campaigns’.

What amazes me is the misconception that exists among some corporate managers that public relations/ communications is the silver bullet to the coveted thought leader status. PR practitioners can help articulate and provide counsel on an existing opinion of the client and communicate it to the desired stakeholders. To think that the communications team/consultant can take sole charge of transforming the company’s image to that of a thought leader is the biggest bluff that can ever be played. Any company or its leader that lacks substance, may see some short-term accolades owing to the efforts of his public relations team but is destined for failure. And any PR practitioner who claims to deliver it is trying to mislead a rather uninformed business leader.       
So does it mean that communications has no role?

The point being made is that over-dependence on communications to deliver on thought leadership is putting the cart before the horse. A communications counsel can surely help a business leader in articulating his/ her thoughts and providing sufficient proof points, provided a strong and relevant opinion exists just as a legal counsel would help a client build strong evidence only and only if the case has merit. It is not mandatory to hire a legal counsel to fight one’s case (a plaintiff is free to fight his/her own case in court) and the same applies to using the services of a communications counsel. That said, the value of the legal counsel or of communications counsel can be significant if the case or content has substance.  

Among individuals, there is an ever blossoming group of wannabe thought leaders who think that by simply regurgitating the same points to suit various contexts, they would stay on top of every discussion. Unfortunately, for them, most people see through these attempts. At a recent so-called thought leaders conference, barring some speakers, most were using the platform to wax eloquent about their individual achievements in the garb of social service. It’s a tad disturbing to see people doing good for the sake of looking good. So, is this one of the milestones in the journey to thought leadership? One’s credibility definitely plays a role but it doesn’t need to be reinforced at every possible opportunity. It may be a foundation but what matters is the structure built on top of it.     

These days, every time I attend an industry event where a speaker utters the blessed words, a thought rushes through my mind. How about exploring a TV show titled ‘Who wants to be a thought leader’ on the lines of ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’. With so many aspirants around, I’ll surely have no dearth of sponsors and participants. The only glitch may be getting the viewers. Hey, what the heck, let me leave that to YouTube. After all, with so many high priests of thought around, need I do all the thinking!