In 1994 when Strategy and Business coined the term thought leader to identify the subjects of its interviews who had made substantial new contributions to the idea base of business. Those thought leader interviews reserved for a very few and only after they had a serious body of published work in their field that changed their field.
Today everyone claims to be a thought leader. If you've had an article published-or if you've just managed to write a coherent sentence on your blog- you're probably a self-proclaimed thought leader.
Although today I can think of 8 to 12 true thought leaders in business, maybe two or three in marketing and sales, I can find thousands who proclaim themselves to be thought leaders. I can think of a great many who are effective, who have contributed, who have changed people's behavior. But I can only think of a very small handful that I'd consider thought leaders.
As soon as someone called me a thought leader, I made the mistake of claiming that role for myself, just as many others have done. I wanted to think of myself that way and when someone pinned that term on me I grabbed it. I claimed it for my own.
Then at some point reality set in. I realized that as nice as it was to have someone say that about me it wasn't true. I wasn't a thought leader. Heck, I don't even personally know any thought leaders. I know lots of people who have been called thought leaders. I know many who call themselves thought leaders. I don't know any thought leaders, though.
Originally thought leadership was a term earned because of the uniqueness, value and scope of one's contributions to business, it meant you'd changed business. Today, it's just a marketing concept that has caught on very well.
In 1994 the term wasn't bestowed just because the recipient of the term had had an original thought. A great many in business have had original thoughts. Those thoughts might be slight changes in a process or a better way to explain a process; they might be a new way of looking an aspect of a problem or a way to combine a couple of different ideas to better solve an unrelated problem. All of these new ideas and solutions are worth being recognized, but simply finding a better way to explain something or a little better way of doing something doesn't rise to the level of thought leadership. Only when one's body of work rises to the point of changing the field they are engaged in do they become a thought leader. Those men and women are few and far between.
In only 15 years we've managed to dumb down the idea of thought leadership from someone who has changed their area of business to someone who can create a marketing plan that implants the idea that they are a thought leader.
When everybody's one, nobody is one.
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