Why thought leadership comes from doing, not talking

Thought leadership can’t be achieved through good communications alone – it must be built on what you’re doing.


We want to share with you this excellent article originally published by The Guardian

It just slipped out, but I think I got away with it. You might characterise it as a low audible sigh. It was right at the point on the call when the prospective client rolled out one of those phrases that have been bleached to oblivion. “Yes,” I said. “Of course we can help you with thought leadership. Can we just agree what we think it means for you first?”

Thought leadership is an overused term in the communications world these days.
It has become a catch-all for what generally seems to be “having an opinion” or talking about something you want to talk about quite a lot. Here are some of the ways we hear it used in our line of work:

“How much will thought leadership cost me?”

“We want to do some thought leadership, but without putting our head above the parapet”

And my favourite:

“Can we do some thought leadership please. Ideally before 4pm tomorrow?”

Thought leadership is a brilliant concept. If you’re seen as a thought leader it can improve your reputation, brand equity and income. Some companies become thought leaders without even realising it – others have expensive programmes in place to achieve it.

But thought leadership in communications is not an activity; it’s a relative position in a market, industry or category – and one that you have to earn. Like corporate reputation, it shouldn’t be valued on internal measures such as how many executive blogs are up on the website. Instead, it’s about how people see you in relation to the other companies or brands talking to them about the same things. To be a real thought leader, people have to see you setting the agenda, again and again.

So here’s the trap. While it’s about how people see you, thought leadership can’t be achieved through really good communications alone. A robust and sustainable thought leadership position is going to be built on what you’re doing, not just what you’re saying.

Offering a great product or service that no one else does is the best foundation; you’re declaring you believe there’s a new and better way to do things (and you’re proving it). It’s no surprise that businesses that have done this are not only the thought leader, but often the industry and category leaders as well, such as Apple and PayPal.

Another strong foundation is the structure, governance or process of your business. Unilever and Interface, a modular carpet tile company, have both instigated changes to make their business practices more sustainable. They’ve been brave and long-sighted and are recognised as such by their stakeholders and customers. Again, it’s no surprise that they have quickly become thought leaders inside and outside their industries.

In essence, it’s much easier to behave yourself, rather than talk yourself, into pole position. This brings me back round to my prospective client asking to have a thought leadership programme. It’s right to communicate about topics where the company excels or has a strong opinion, but let’s be careful that a programme doesn’t just become about corporate visibility and share of voice. Let’s ask instead what the single biggest question facing your industry is and reach back into the business to find out what you’re doing to answer it. If any part of that answer is unique, surprising and demands attention, then the seeds of “thought leadership” are there.

Toby Conlon is senior associate director at Lexis




Scroll to Top