What is Thought Leadership, and What’s the ROI?

4 min read

Thought leadership is something many businesses and executives aspire to, and for good reason. Thought leadership can distinguish your personal brand, improve your company’s reputation, and result in opportunities that you might not otherwise be privy to — all of which can boost your visibility and, potentially, your profitability. How do you start?

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I’m an expert on X, aren’t I already a thought leader?

Maybe! Subject matter experts (or SMEs) are deeply knowledgeable pros who can reliably provide important contextual, historical, or fact-based information about a particular industry, technology, or event. Think about people that journalists tap to bring an expert voice to events in the news such as the engineers who were in demand to help us understand the 2017 freeway collapse in Atlanta. Reporters needed expert contextual and technical information to deliver insights into why and how that bridge collapsed. It was a newsworthy event that sparked lots of questions.

Consider also the epidemiologists, virologists, and public health experts who have become household names over the course of 2020 — the experts, not the pundits — who helped us understand the pandemic from a scientific basis.

To become a sought after subject matter expert requires more than smarts — you also need to be able to share what you know with those who are outside of your area of expertise, avoiding industry jargon and complicated explanations and often serving as a voice of reason in the midst of a teachable moment.

That’s great, but I’ve got more than expertise. I like to challenge the status quo.

Now it’s getting interesting! Thought leadership is different from subject matter expertise in a couple of key ways:

  • It is based on your ability to develop and communicate a distinct point of view (POV) consistently over time and across multiple opportunities, engaging with audiences inside and outside of your industry or profession.
  • It is less about you, and even less about your company — thought leadership happens when you connect with your audience (or multiple audiences) in a place that transcends the transaction. It’s not a sales and marketing strategy as much as it is a part of your DNA.

Thought leadership typically happens when you challenge the status quo, deliver a provocative POV, or disrupt a commonly held idea or ideal — or all three. Often, thought leadership puts a company or an individual in opposition to, or in a position of advocacy for, controversial topics. Thought leadership sometimes — but not always — requires that you take a stand at the risk of offending or alienating certain audiences as a result.

If you’re doing it right, thought leadership can become an expression of your values, and in doing so can become a very public frame for your decision-making.

Here’s an example:

Yvon Chouinard has household-name recognition for many people, but even if you don’t know who he is, you know his company, Patagonia. You might be an avid outdoors person or simply enjoy the sporty and functional nature of the company’s products, and that may be the extent of your relationship with the brand. But, if you’re also interested in the environment or engage in environmental activism, Yvon and Patagonia likely occupy a thought leadership space in your brain.

Patagonia recently pledged $1 million to fight for voting rights here in our home state of Georgia just as news of the new election law here was breaking, along with dozens of other states with similar laws on the docket. Before that, the company launched a protest against a move to shrink Bears Ears, a national monument in Utah full of anthropological and ecological significance, that was put at risk for development. Patagonia’s legacy of activism is as old as the company and as bold as any brand on the planet. They take consistent and vocal stands, put dollars, leadership, and activism behind the stand, and their brand is distinct and one of a kind as a result.

Thought leadership doesn’t have to be at the Patagonia level and you don’t have to have a household brand name to become a thought leader. Passion, a strongly considered point of view, and a willingness to engage, debate, and respectfully take a stand can elevate you or your brand into a position of thought leadership in your industry, in your community, or among particular audiences.

Becoming a recognized subject matter expert or a thought leader can benefit your personal brand and your company’s reputation, and you can “earn” one or the other in many of the same ways that you or your business earns media or influence — by authoring and contributing to scholarly and other industry journals, by making yourself available to media and influencers who are working to inform and educate audiences about particular topics, and by engaging with your industry through professional organizations, in online platforms, and with other influencers in the space.

Subject matter expertise requires that you are at the top of the knowledge game, while thought leadership requires an unwavering commitment to a notion, an ideal, or topic, as well as an authentic curiosity and willingness to engage. Pundits aren’t necessarily thought leaders, and thought leaders don’t often operate as pundits.

What are you most passionate about, and would you bet your reputation on it? Then give us a call!

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