“The critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.”
– Pauline Kael
Even though thought leaders generously share their expertise and avoid sales talk, their content is legally considered advertising, because the intention behind it is sales. This, of course, is a challenge for credibility, something critics of thought leadership point out. Thanks to the internet and social media, it has never been easier to become a thought leader.
Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway has been waging war with her pen against nonsense from so-called thought leaders for over twenty-five years, until she in 2017 declared the battle lost. She believes that the term has little meaning and is used for “any old fool in possession of an ego and a blog”. She believes that many who are called thought leaders show neither signs of original thinking nor leadership.
At the same time, Edelman’s trust barometer shows that people trust businesses more than governments and media. In fact, business is the only institution people trust as ethical and competent, while people are neutral towards voluntary organizations, governments, and media. This means that an expert in a business has more credibility than an academic or journalist.
According to Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics and author of the book The Ideas Industry, thought leaders play an important role in the ecosystem where ideas are created, exchanged, criticized, refined, or discarded, which he calls the marketplace of ideas.
Drezner distinguishes between public intellectuals and thought leaders. The former group knows a little about many things, while the latter group knows a lot about one big thing.
Thought leaders, whom Drezner refers to as the intellectual evangelists, are usually the ones who launch new ideas (often in the form of a TED Talk or a viral blog post), while the public intellectuals are the ones who criticize these ideas. Drezner believes both are needed to maintain balance in the marketplace of ideas.
In a comment in leading Norwegian business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (2017), journalist Eva Grinde quotes both me and Drezner in response to Fritt Ord (free press foundation) chairman Knut Olav Åmås, who in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten called for a cooling down of the demand for politics always to be based on research.
Here thought leadership is almost portrayed as a contradiction to research-based knowledge, and thought leaders are caricatured as “men and women in search of truth”.
Grinde primarily argues that political decisions should still be based on knowledge derived from research rather than anecdotal evidence.
It’s hard to disagree with her on that. Leaders, whether they work in business, the public sector, or politics, should all make informed decisions based on facts – to the extent possible – and as conveyors of expertise, we should be well acquainted with the research in the field we represent, refer to it, and build on it.
But Åmås has an important point in his article, where he writes that “lack of knowledge becomes an excuse for not acting”.
For example, in the marketing industry, we see that academia doesn’t always manage to keep up with the pace because new marketing tools are driven by technological development, which means that best practices are constantly in play.
If leaders were to make decisions based solely on research-based knowledge in textbooks, reports, or scientific articles, they would not survive in today’s market, where the only constant is change, and where the rate of change is continually increasing.
A symptom of this is that literature from practitioners is included in the curriculum at the college level, because there is no research on it yet (one of my e-books has been recommended reading at Kristiania University College). Without practitioners challenging established truths or seeing new correlations, academics also have nothing to research, so we again see that thought leaders have an important function in the marketplace of ideas.
Most industries and fields have their “cowboys” and “one-trick ponies”, who with charisma and big promises lead people astray. At the same time, there are some who take a front position and tread paths where no one has gone before, who have actually accomplished something, and who show others how they can copy their success.
That’s thought leadership! Just remember that your thoughts and ideas will be challenged.
About the author
Erlend helps B2B businesses grow as their hired Fractional CMO, consultant or copywriter. He has previously been the Chief Marketing Officer and a senior business consultant at Spring Agency, and the Marketing Manager at MarkedsPartner. He was educated at BI Norwegian Business School (BI) and Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) and has been working with marketing since the turn of the millennium.