Can You Have Thought Leadership Without Thought?

the only rule is work

Flickr photo by litherland

Having worked in PR for more than a dozen years, one of the unkillable buzz-phrases has been “thought leader.” For PR clients, it’s a simplified expression for being known for more than self-promotional reasons. rather than shilling your product or company (there is always a place for that), show expertise in a topic, and get media coverage, and industry recognition, and the resulting boost in credibility helps bring credibility to- well, your shilling of your company and product.

Fast forward to social media days, where the push and pull between communications consulting (PR, marketing, and even advertising are being bundled up in social media, confusing matters more) and brazen self-promotion has become more fierce.

See, as a PR flak I took a lot of pride in being behind the scenes, making clients famous. I guess I was the same way in my media days as well, preferring the role of editor and producer to that of on-air personality or bylined reporter. As my work moved more towards, social media, many of us made the unaccustomed move to be out front, blogging and Tweeting  and making all sorts of media that other people can see. This process has created a lot more visibility for many of us, and that’s great as far as it instructs in how to make the people who pay us famous.

Again, we  come to the push/pull between consulting and self-promotion. I tend to tread lightly, because many people I consider friends have gotten”social media famous” or whatever you like to call it. However, determining the difference between people enjoying the sound of their own voices and those who are genuinely making contributions has become harder to discern in the flood of social media publishing (and I use that term in its broadest meaning, not just books).

This difficulty makes articles like this one in the Harvard Business Review (“How to Become a Thought Leader in six Steps”) dangerous, to be frank. Here are the six steps from Dorie Clark’s post:

  1. Create a Robust Online Presence
  2. Flaunt High-Quality Affiliations
  3. Give Public Speeches
  4. Appear on TV
  5. Win Some Awards
  6. Publish a Book

First, what is great about them is that they are common-sense steps to get attention- nothing new to PR folks, but always bearing repetition.

What worries me about this list, is it is all about gaining attention, and those prone to self-absorption will follow these rules to the hilt without necessarily fueling it with what is most necessary: thought. Just as good PR cannot overcome a bad product, effective thought leadership cannot truly survive if narcissism takes hold.

So, follow these rules (and use the word “robust” – sorry, couldn’t resist) at your peril. Is publishing a book necessary? Awards? Speaking? How about a barrel of case studies of your actual work (which might win you those awards or be publishable in a book. And high-quality affiliations are great, but flaunting them is not something I would find attractive in a potential consultant- in fact, if that’s what I look for in a hire I have already lost.

To be fair, this list will probably serve several people well, particularly Ms Clark’s audience. To me, however, it comes up empty. Substance will always rule; theses rules are polish.

Perhaps it takes Six Steps to be a “Thought Leader,” but I’m guessing twice as many to pull back if you go too far.


  1. Johnny Rotten said, “You’ll find that empty vessels make the most sound.” And if you build hype without thought, then you’ve got nothing to sell. Just a lot of hot air.

  2. I suppose I ought to write a post called “How to Kill a Human Being in Six Steps.”

    Of course, it begs the question, “Does he need killing?”

    If you haven’t asked that question first, then all the work in following the six steps are pointless.

  3. Looking at her account on Twitter, it appears she’s trying to brand herself as such an expert. I wonder when she plans on writing her book.

    If she hasn’t already.

    I do like her post that the business phone call is dead. Disagree 100 percent, but shows that she’s out of touch on what’s happening to high-touch PR and marketing.

  4. You would hope that “listening,” “engaging,” or anything involving “community cultivation” would be important. Sadly, they really aren’t.

    You don’t have to listen to be a thought leader.

    Seth Godin.

  5. My grandad once asked me why I went to University. I said I wanted to get a degree so I knew more and would get a job easier (oh, the folly of youth). His reply:

    “Pfft. All a degree does is make you more qualified to know bugger all.”

    And he was right. Sounds like there’s a generation of bugger alls waiting for advice like Dorie’s…

  6. Great Post. As always it’s a fine line us PR people balance on. To me, having the substance to back up being a thought leader is what’s most important.

  7. I always look at lists as something for dummies and not in a good way. By compartmentalizing things like the HBR list into commonsense steps, folks stop thinking for themselves in favor of listening to a piece of paper, website, blog or pundit says.

  8. Thanks all– I try hard to see it the author’s way, but the more I read this post the more I see it as an “empty vessel,” to quote Geoff’s quote.

    I just know we’re all (and hopefully Dories is too) better than this.

  9. […] Similarly, top marketing blogger Chris Brogan tweeted a recommendation to read this Harvard Business Review blog post: “How to Become a Thought Leader in Six Steps.” Unfortunately, no where in the article does it teach you to think, or about developing something worth sharing with others who may actually find it valuable. While some of the steps have some value, the overall exploitative instant success approach to the post is objectionable (see Doug Haslam’s outstanding post). […]

  10. Doug, I am SO glad you brought up that Harvard Business Review blog post. I read that and thought “What the hell? This isn’t even Harvard standard.” (If it is, then I think I need to cancel my subscription.)

    We tread on thin ice if we keep lowering (or shall I say dumb down) content to the lowest common denominator. Critical thought is so very important and through ‘quick hit’ success of personal brands and tweets and cool campaigns that produce nothing but buzz, we are quickly (if we haven’t already) falling through the ice.

  11. Lucretia Pruitt

    Love this post, no matter how much I hate the fact that you would ever need to write it.
    I’ve always had a bit of aversion to the term “thought leader” as it has that cult-ish, brain-washed masses sound to it. But in a world where people strive to have “followers” and not connections, I suppose it’s to be expected that some will be drawn to the title rather than to the accomplishments that used to be ascribed to it.

    Thanks for taking a few moments to remind us all that there is more to this idea than becoming “popular” on the Internet.

  12. Beth- not sure if HBR online has the same standards, or if someone thought this article was saying something that we’re missing, or what.

    Lucretia– “thought leader” has been around a long time as a PR term– it’s easy to throw that around with clients in the name of urging them to promote their expertise as opposed to always shilling product. Other than its overuse, I don’t necessarily hate the term, but it can’t be a goal unto itself (well, I suppose it can, but barf)

  13. Doug

    Right on the money. Was too appalled at this piece to actually comment. Didn’t trust myself not to say more than I should, and so am happy to have you to hide behind!! Yes the logic is backward. But also, this says nothing new, so why should it be on what is (or was) the world’s most prestigious business publication site? And there’s no justification for any of these suggestions – so how do we know she didn’t just make them up in the shower?


    A truly terrible piece IMO; thanks for remarking on it.

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