Putting More Thought into Thought Leadership

A light bulb that stable and glowing among the others

It’s amazing what passes for thought leadership these days. A spot on a sparsely attended panel. A webinar that nobody watches. A blog that no one bothers to read. If you are reaching so few people and having a negligible impact, can it really be called thought leadership?

Most of the time it’s purely a vanity exercise. Executives want to see themselves on stage, on screen and online. Yet, such small, superficial engagements actually can increase the reputational risks they face. So, I think it’s about time to rethink what smart thought leadership looks like.

Frequently, these exercises only serve to highlight that there are not many people following your company’s “lead” on an issue. If few people show up or engage with your content, it can hardly be portrayed as influencing anything.


Rethink Thought Leadership

So, what does good thought leadership involve? First, it cannot just be about you or your company. The big idea needs to address a broader challenge and offer something new and provocative. If you seek to be a thought leader, then you need to spend the time to develop a theory people want to follow.

Second, before rushing to get up on stage or out onto social media, take the time to invest in a few key individual relationships that can help on the amplification front. Whether it be journalists or analysts, if they know you and your ideas, it’s far more likely they will show up or share them.

Finally, lift up others. Find groups and people who are doing similar things. Partner and collaborate with them. It will greatly enhance the perception and practical reach of your power.

We live in a time when influence is much more elusive. An occasional speech or a story does not carry the same weight. Yet, our strategies for elevating ideas have not changed much in the last few years.

There is a real need to be more thoughtful about thought leadership. It begins with a boldness of vision. It involves a commitment to making authentic connections. It requires an openness to empowering others. If you can do those three things, then you too can hold a powerful position.

Brett Bruen teaches crisis at Georgetown University and served as President Obama’s director of global engagement. He is president of the Global Situation Room.