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Customer experience strategy and innovation expert Woody Bendle is back, ranting up about thought leadership, what it means, and whether or not you can be a self-appointed thought leader. I've had a beef with the term for long time. That beef grew when a co-worker from the corporate days routed a strategy document he said was shaped by a number of thought leaders in the company. This was the first I and a really sharp co-worker had heard or seen of it. Get the picture? After that, the inside joke between us was whatever the hurdle was to be a thought leader, we were apparently FAR from it. But who knows, if you can meet Woody's criteria, you just might be thought leader! Here's Woody:

You Just Might be a Thought Leader by Woody Bendle

I look forward to this time every year when the Nobel prizes are awarded!  How exciting!

Since 1901 (with the exception of three years during WWII), the global community has celebrated the achievements of individuals making the most substantial contributions towards the benefit of mankind in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, World Peace, and (since 1969) Economics.

The list of Nobel Laureates, in my opinion, is the quintessential who’s who list of Thought Leaders.  Here are a few you might recognize:

  • Marie Curie – Chemistry – 1911
  • Albert Einstein – Physics – 1921
  • T.S. Elliot – Literature – 1948
  • Max Theiler – Medicine – 1951
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. – Peace – 1964
  • Milton Friedman – Economics – 1976

Ranting-Woody-Bendle2Quite a list of thought leaders, wouldn't you agree?

So you say you want to be a thought leader?

They say timing is everything, and the timing of this year’s Nobel prizes is really interesting in that I recently participated with entrepreneurs and innovators in a moderated discussion on Branding and Public Relations for startup businesses.  Within the first few minutes, the group’s conversation turned to the importance of being recognized as a “thought leader”’  For 45 minutes, the group discussed thought leadership and what they were doing (or thought others could be doing) to be seen as Thought Leaders.

I kept thinking there sure was a lot of misunderstanding about thought leadership. As far as I was concerned, most of what the group was talking about had little, if anything, to do with true thought leadership. What I took away from the group’s discussion, was thought leadership essentially boils down to three things:

  1. Putting out a lot of content that positions oneself (or one’s organization) as being a thought leader
  2. Having a lot of followers sharing or “liking” your content
  3. Getting a reputable publication do an article on you (or your organization) talking about your thought-leading status

While these tactics may very well help grow a business or build a brand, I do not at all feel it makes one a thought leader.

On my way home, I replayed the thought leadership conversation mentally, and it really bothered me that so many people actually felt that:

  1. It is really important to be seen (or positioned) as a thought leader
  2. It is relatively straight forward to actually become a thought leader
  3. And labeling yourself as a thought leader is expected in today’s business world

I flat-out disagree! True thought leaders are few and very far between!  They occupy the rarest of rare air!  They are in fact, the types of  extraordinary individuals who win Nobel Prizes!  But I have to admit, I wasn’t able to necessarily come up with a succinct working definition of Thought Leader.

You Just Might Be a Thought Leader

As I batted around some working principles of “thought leadership”, my inner Jeff Foxworthy took over.  Given no widely agreed upon definition for Thought Leadership, I took a crack at coming up with some of my own criteria.

  • If you have a body of thought named after you . . . you just might be a thought leader.
  • If you have created a widely used strategic framework, and it is named after you . . . you just might be a thought leader.
  • If you have developed an approach that has become the foundation for an industry or broader discipline . . . you just might be a thought leader.
  • If your approach to something has revolutionized the path forward for your field . . . you just might be a thought leader.
  • If you have an elementary particle named after you . . . you just might be a thought leader (with a nod to this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics recipient Peter Higgs).
  • If you have actually won the Nobel Prize . . . you just might a thought leader.

And here’s one more for good measure:

  • If you have the audacity call yourself a thought leader . . . you most definitely are NOT a thought leader!

I’m sure with more time, I could add to my list, but this is a pretty good starting point.  Besides, I’d love to hear some of your Jeff Foxworthy-esque thought leadership criteria! Woody Bendle

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