Thought Leader vs. Thought Leadership; Where Should My Business Focus?

What Black Sabbath can teach marketers about achieving thought leadership as an organization

April 7, 2015

Thought leadership can be very intimidating to many businesses, but it doesn’t have to be. The question quickly becomes, who will be our thought leader and how do we position that person as so? I think that’s the wrong approach and the wrong question to ask.

As marketers we shouldn’t necessarily all be striving to become the next Jay Baer or Ann Handley (two of my favorite thought leaders); it’s just not scalable or realistic for most businesses. Instead I believe we should be focused on creating a culture of content across all business lines and harnessing insights from our brightest employees to collectively achieve thought leadership as an organization. But before I get too far ahead of myself here, let’s take a deeper dive into the two concepts at hand.

What is a Thought Leader?

I love this definition from Forbes as I think they sum it up perfectly.

“A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.”

It’s important to point out that a thought leader can be either an “individual or firm” or both, but more on that in a second.

What is Thought Leadership?

In a nutshell, thought leadership is about sharing insights and ideas and a unique point of view – that provoke new ways of thinking, spark discussion and debates, and inspire action. True thought leadership is achieved when an individual or firm knows a topic inside and out, has formed a clear, unique and defensible point of view about it, and freely shares that perspective.

So whether it’s an individual or an organization, the message is the same, it’s the delivery that is different.

Thought Leader vs. Thought Leadership: A Lesson from Black Sabbath

If you have seen me speak before or read pretty much anything that I write, you’re probably waiting for the rock 'n' roll analogy. Not to disappoint, here you go:

The concept of the thought leader vs. thought leadership can be illustrated by looking at the greatest heavy metal band of all time, Black Sabbath. These guys are true thought leaders because they are innovators. Collectively they transformed blues into something truly novel, something that no one had ever heard before; they invented heavy metal.

If you break down the history of the Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne could be viewed as the individual thought leader and genius of the band. Let me be clear that I’m not advocating that we all strive to become Ozzy Osbourne, as he certainly would not be a good ambassador for your customers and prospects, and you certainly wouldn’t win any points with the bat or dove population. To paraphrase the poet Matsuo Basho, don’t follow in his footsteps, but instead seek what he sought. Ozzy wanted to stand out, to be unique and more importantly to be remembered. Your job as a content marketer is to break through the noise, rise above the pack, and do the same.

Even though he is a thought leader in his own right, after his departure the band went on without him and continued to achieve thought leadership, but this time collectively as a group. By tapping into the expertise of each band member, they no longer relied on one thought leader to carry their music and their message forward. Your business can do the same by not relying on a single thought leader to carry your message, but to instead harness the insights of the entire organization.

Because the band achieved thought leadership collectively, something much more valuable came to fruition. When Ozzy left the band it created a void in the heavy metal community for a new thought leader to emerge, and that would be the great Ronnie James Dio. Forty years later their legacy and influence continues to this day as the British Phonograph Institute recently named them as the most important band of all time, even beating out Led Zeppelin.

The lesson for marketers is simple: Invest in a culture of content that aligns with your company's vision and business goals and don’t put all of your thought leadership eggs in one basket.

And While We’re at it, What’s the Difference Between Thought Leadership and Content Marketing?

In my mind thought leadership and content marketing are intertwined. In fact, in a recent survey, establishing thought leadership is cited as one of the key reasons that B2B marketers engage in content marketing. As content marketing continues to grow and the landscape gets noisier and more difficult for marketers to break through, thought leadership will be our secret weapon to differentiate our products and services from our competition. Without it marketers would be competing on price alone and therefore losing to the lowest bidder.

A Thought Leader Rises

Like any good idea or progressive thinking initiative there is risk associated with striving to achieve thought leadership. This question comes up all the time from marketing and sales leaders: 'What happens if I invest in a thought leader and they end up leaving?' You shouldn’t approach it like that and you certainly can’t squander individual thought leadership nor should you attempt to stop a thought leader from emerging. If you are fortunate enough to cultivate a thought leader during the process, that’s a good thing. For one, that thought leader will very likely carry the business brand with them wherever they go and advocate for your business for a very long time. Second, your company will be a very attractive target for future thought leaders as they look for a company or position.

The world has enough thought leaders, but not enough thought leadership. I’ve been called a thought leader in certain circles, and while that’s certainly flattering to hear, it’s not my goal and never has been. I’m a marketer working to help other marketers be successful. Along the way I’ve worked at some pretty amazing companies that took thought leadership both individually and collectively very seriously and it continues to pay off. Now if you want to talk about building your personal brand, that’s another story all together. Stay tuned marketing friends.

Ready to learn how your organization can best leverage thought leadership on LinkedIn? Download our popular all-encompassing playbook, The Sophisticated Marketer’s Guide to Thought Leadership.

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