No single holistic and complete definition of what defines business leader has been identified. Numerous studies have explored the traits, behaviors, actions and beliefs in an attempt to build a model that defines leadership. Traditional ideas of leadership such as those by Drucker define a leader as an individual who is capable of ‘lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to higher standards, and the building of personality beyond its normal limitations’ (Durcker, 2008). However, little association is made to thought leadership: the concept that organizational differentiation, value and uniqueness stems from the few whose passion, knowledge and authenticity allows them to innovate and create completely new ideas and concepts.
This post the concepts of thought leadership, the attributes of a thought leader, the relationship to innovation and through case studies demonstrates how organizational design, culture and values encourage thought leadership. Comparisons to traditional leadership theory will be used to highlight how thought leadership can positively impact an organization, its customers and ultimately its financial outcomes.
Organizations produce large amounts of various content. However, one has to question the genesis of this content. Thought-leadership introduces the opposing concept of content creation and content collation. Content creation is considered the generation of new, original, forward-thinking perspectives on critical industry challenges (Boday & Thiel, 2011). Conversely, content collation is simply the rearrangement of this content to address specific contexts. Collation does not generate intrinsic value, fails to add new perspectives and does not contribute to innovation.
Extending the idea that successful companies differentiate themselves based on the way they think as much as by the products and services they sell, this paper contends that the ultimate goal of thought leadership from the perspective of innovation, is to fuel an organizations public relations strategy through new innovative ways of thinking and unique, original perspectives.
Many authors have proposed a number of definitions of thought leadership. McCrimmon proposes that thought leaders are individuals who completely engross themselves in their area of expertise in a search to discover new ways of articulating concepts and arguments in such a way as to add value to their organizations (McCrimmon, Thought Leadership, 2011). Such a definition supports the position of Craig Bading who defined a seven-step process (named by acronym START IP) designed to achieve thought leadership through consumer brand awareness. Specifically, that thought leadership should be founded on specific issues that face an industry, and should be articulated through conversation rather than through “broadcast” messaging (Bading, 2009).
Fiona Czerniawska proposes that thought leadership can be found in the ‘white space’ between the ‘noise’ of your competitors and truly new innovative ideas (Czerniawska, 2007). In later works she added that for a customer to consider concepts borne of thought leadership they must instantly be able to recognize the concept as relevant and valuable to their work (Source Information Services, 2007). An example of this idea was highlighted by Sandra Richtermeyer who pointed out that both academics and practitioners appreciate the benefits of thought leadership when the proposed concepts and thoughts create opportunities for them (Richtermeyer, 2011). McCrimmon takes this one step further and argues that though thought leadership is the initiation of new directions and categorizes the implementation of these ideas as managerial activity (McCrimmon, Thought Leadership, 2011).
Kouzes and Posner believe that leadership is a journey – the leader sells his idea and leaves those around him/her to reach the destination (Kouzes & Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 1987). Such a view of leadership relies on personal credibility and the ability of the leader to influence their followers. Conversely, McCrimmon argues that thought leaders are different to traditional leaders and have a more competitive edge. They don’t rely on motivation or influence, rather a deep; heart felt conviction that they know better than anyone else in the organization (McCrimmon, Thought Leadership, 2011). However, in a 2006 interview, Brian Carroll, stated that thought leadership is “not about trying to pontificate on how great you are, or trying to edify yourself” (Carroll, 2006). Whilst, it would seem that the literature and practical evidence are yet to settle on the specific attributes of a thought leader, there is a general acceptance that thought leadership and both traditional and top down management have little in common (McCrimmon, Thought Leadership, 2011).
Kouzes and Posner, however, support the concept of challenging the status quo. One of their five key leadership principles is “challenge the way”. As such this highlights the generally accepted principle that thinking outside the box (McCrimmon, Thought Leadership: a radical departure from traditional, positional leadership, 2005) is a key essential element of thought leadership (Kouzes & Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 2002)
Many have attempted to define the attributes and traits of a thought leader. Clark questions how one becomes “the” singular expert and doesn’t just participate in a conversation but drives it (Clark, 2010). Buday and Thiel suggest four attributes 1) unique insights into the problem at hand; 2) experience in solving such problem with clients; 3) integration of the results of those experiences (learning from the past); and 4) a unique and novel approach to doing the work (Boday & Thiel, 2011). Bading offers a trait based view, arguing that a thought leader “must” have these traits – 1) trustworthiness; 2) respectfulness; 3) perseverance; 4) benevolence; 5) ability to lead by example; 6) ability to inspire and influence; and 7) intelligence (Bading, 2009). Ryan Zuk offers a similar, though more succinct list of traits; 1) knowledgeable; 2) aware; 3) interesting; 4) innovative; 5) engaged; and 6) accessible (Zuk, 2009). It would seem that there is a general consensus in the literature that at least knowledge, innovative thinking and the ability to inspire and influence are the crucial attributes of a thought leader.
Thought Leadership and the “Innovators Dilemma”
Modern companies, specifically those in the technology sector are exposed to the continual tidal wave of disruptive innovations. Clayton Christensens seminal book “The Innovators Dilemma” called this the “technological mudslide theory” (Chrsitensen, 1997) and outlines how disruptive innovations drive industry transformation and market creation (Chrsitensen, 1997). Thought leadership clearly plays a role in ensuring that a company continues to stay in the drivers seat of its industry.
Xerox and Polaroid were once known as both industry and thought leaders. Today neither company is a driving force in their respective industries. One may argue that they failed to address the innovators dilemma. As new technologies and industries grew around new technological capabilities they failed to maintain their thought leadership, they lost the driving seat and over time as their once leading technologies become mature, incremental improvements in products become increasingly less impactful, less differentiated and eventually, fundamentally new "disruptive" shifts in technology occur. This is highlighted by the failure of Xerox to address the innovations in personal computing, and by Polaroid to foresee the impact of digital photography.
It is reasonable to argue that without thought leadership, a company is only capable of incremental innovation. Though leadership provides a company with the foresight, passion and know-how to avoid the innovators dilemma and bring to market technologies, concepts and ideas that truly transform an industry.
Thought leadership is the tool that allows a company to create disruption, profit from the industry turmoil it creates, deliver value to its customers and maintain leadership, avoiding being swept up in the disruptive innovation of others.
Thought Leadership In The Work Place
The genesis of many companies is that of a start-up. Characterized by shoe-string budgets, innovation was necessity – the need to deliver as much as possible with as little resources as possible. The need to listen to customers and deliver on their wishes was paramount to success. Often demonstrating a “youthful rebelliousness” (McCrimmon, Thought Leadership, 2011) start-ups demand a different way of thinking and execution in an environment where traditional top down management models are ineffective. Nowhere has this approach been more obvious than with Apple Computer who in 1997 re-invigorated itself with the slogan “think different”, effectively re-instating the start-up mindset and culture, ultimately resulting in Apple becoming the clear industry thought leader.
One may question the role of culture, organization design, and company values in the fostering of thought leadership. The characteristics and attributes of those companies who both produce and attract thought leaders are not clearly defined. Transcending the relationship between organization and customer, companies who truly embrace thought leadership provide their staff a platform for demonstrating the unique value of the company to current and future customers. These companies allow their staff to publicly demonstrate their expertise (Carroll, 2006), they believe the reputation of their staff is a reflection of the company itself. As such they build a culture and value system that takes this belief into account.
Companies with a belief in the value of thought leadership promote their brand through their thought leaders (Bading, 2009). They want their thought leaders to set the agenda of the industry, be publically recognized and be praised for their innovation (Clark, 2010). A number of interviews with senior executives highlighted key activities that are critical success factors when a company is promoting thought leadership (Clark, 2010) (Carroll, 2006) (Bading, 2009): 1) creation of a robust online presence; 2) use of high quality contacts and networks; 3) public speaking engagements; 4) television appearances; 5) publishing of peer reviewed articles; 6) publishing of industry related books; and 7) Winning of reputable awards.
The following case studies explore two different companies and how their culture, values, organization design and leadership support the development of thought leadership. By focusing on these aspects, a more robust argument for the identification of those organizational attributes that foster thought leadership can be constructed.
Case Study 1: Uecomm Pty. Ltd
Uecomm was formed in 1996 as a subsidiary of United Energy. From the outset, Uecomm was focused on thought leadership and innovation. Becoming the first utility to obtain a telecommunications license Uecomm deployed a national fibre optic network.
Being a young, vibrant and well funded, Uecomm was able to attract enthusiastic, talented and knowledgeable staff. This was specifically evident in the area of network engineering quickly becoming widely known for its talent and thought leadership.
Early on Uecomm understood the concepts outlined by Czerniawska, identifying ‘white space’ (Czerniawska, 2007). This white space was both a mix of market opportunity and technology advanced. Pioneering Ethernet as a low cost wide area network transport technology they quickly gained market share and became a major driving force in the global standardization of Ethernet technologies. Such an outcome is that proposed by Clark (2010) allowing Uecomm to drive the industry discussion, rather than participate in it.
Their market dominance was under pinned by widely held belief that their knowledge was superior to that of other providers. By making time for staff to promote their knowledge, attend conferences, publish press releases and author global standards, Uecomm promoted its brand as a knowledgeable, low cost alternative to Telstra and Optus. From the outset this mindset separated Uecomm from its competitors, from manning the network operations center with highly skilled and trained engineers to industry participation and technology advocacy, Uecomm and its employees won many industry awards.
Uecomm focused heavily on organizational culture. Recently, their slogan was “listen, create, deliver” – demonstrating their commitment to the customer. From a management perspective, this slogan also applied to the employees in their everyday roles. They were listened to, allowed to create and encouraged to deliver on their ideas and creativity. Such an approach aligns with the propositions of Boday, Bading and Zuk (Bading, 2009) (Boday & Thiel, 2011) (Zuk, 2009).
The Uecomm personal development program includes a specific target for technology and thought leadership for all its engineering staff. This target is designed to re-enforce the importance of leading the industry and maintaining its strong brand reputation. Such an approach is also seen by management as mechanism for linking the development of technical staff to the availability of resources and funding for activities such as training, article publication, authoring of standards and speaking engagements.
Today the Uecomm culture of innovation, leadership and thinking outside the box continues to grow and strengthen. Recently, implementing a comprehensive innovation program, Uecomm maintains it commitment to thought leadership allowing all staff to spend 20% of their time on an industry advancement that they feel valuable. Though in its infancy, this program is specifically aimed at ensuring Uecomm and its staff remain at the forefront of their industry and maintain their strong brand reputation for thought leadership.
Case Study 2: Cisco Systems
Cisco started life as a start-up in 1984 based in San-Francisco, taking its name from its home town. Cisco designed and built multi protocol routers, whilst not the first company to sell routers (Cringley, 2005) Cisco was the first to successfully commercialize multi-protocol routers for both the enterprise and service provider markets. Today Cisco's brand in networking is analogous to what Xerox and Polaroid were to their respective industries. Thought leadership played a major role in their success.
From its inception, Cisco was renowned for its thought leadership. Specifically, the establishment and participation in emerging global standards bodies that ultimately defined and specified the fundamental technologies that evolved to underpin the Internet. Early on Cisco understood the importance of setting its thought leaders apart and developed its Fellow and Distinguished Engineer Program.
Distinguished Engineers and Fellows exhibit superior leadership, responsibility and accomplishment in technical and strategic areas critical to Cisco's success. Fellows have additionally achieved high levels of industry and internal recognition. The accomplishments of both have led to significant changes in the networking industry. Such a definition cuts across the majority of theoretical understanding of thought leadership.
Cisco not only provides time, funding and support for its thought leaders, it actively encourages the pursuit of thought leadership through career progression programs, mentoring and coaching. The use of technology to deliver the messages of thought leadership are well defined and broadly used. One such example is that of “The Platform”, a blog site specifically designed to deliver and re-enforce the messages of the companies thought leadership. In 2010 Marie Hatter, Senior Vice President of Marketing commented “So for those of you who are trying to shape and influence in the business world, rethink what you know about your target audience and always remember that by today’s standards, the medium is—more than ever—the message.” (Hattar, 2010).
The continued investment in, and fostering of thought leadership within Cisco is not only built into the companies DNA, it is a necessity for survival. As new technologies mature and commoditize, companies such as Cisco lean heavily on its thought leaders to deliver new exciting and innovative technologies and strategies. Without thought leadership, Cisco would become disconnected from emerging standards, irrelevant to its customers and ultimately unable to influence the markets.
Organizational Traits For Thought Leadership
Both Cisco and Uecomm have proud histories of thought leadership. Whilst on different scales, both have been leaders, setting the agenda for an entire industry.
Based on the case studies above the following organizational traits have been identified as critical to achieve and maintain thought leadership.
1) Top down commitment– The senior leadership of both companies believe that thought leadership is a significant asset. As such they continually drive a culture that fosters and develops thought leaders, ensuring sufficient resources are made available and embed systems and processes that set thought leaders apart from other employees. Appropriate reward and recognition programs are also set in place to ensure thought leaders are continually rewarded for their passion, commitment and leadership.
2) An appetite for risk– To identify “white space” and allocate resources to filling the space has a number on inherent risks. None more so than getting it wrong – both Cisco and Uecomm have demonstrated their ability to take risks. In the case of Uecomm to bring to market a new innovative use of low cost Ethernet technology and in the case of Cisco the development of multi-protocol routers. In either scenario, it was a risk to challenge the status quo, to invest time and money into new markets. However, history has shown that both Cisco and Uecomm have taken risks based on their belief that they knew better than anyone else and earlier than the competition how to disrupt the industry to build profitable models from this disruption.
3) Belief that the organization can shape an industry – It may be argued that the belief that a company can shape an entire industry is borne from arrogance. Both Cisco and Uecomm have proven this is not the case. They have shown this belief is an artifact of the organizational DNA, a trait based in their culture dictating that they must shape an industry to be sustainable. The case studies have shown, this is an essential element required for thought leadership to flourish within a company.
4) Use of technology as a tool– Cisco, more so than Uecomm makes good use of technology as a tool for the delivery of their thought leadership messaging. Blogging and twitter is common place and thought leaders are encouraged to publicly express their thoughts and continually communicate their ideas both online and through industry forms, standards bodies and the media.
The literature review, case studies, theory and research all point to thought leadership as a critical element to the long-term success of any company. It is clear that organizational differentiation, value and uniqueness stem from the few whose passion, knowledge and authenticity allows them to innovate and create completely new ideas and concepts.
Such an outcome is important for all companies that desire to achieve or maintain an industry leading position. Thought leadership is the key to avoiding the innovators dilemma and provides a mechanism by which sufficient foresight can be obtained in order to avoid being forced into irrelevance through disruptive change.
The two case studies provided show two different approaches to thought leadership though provide a common cross section of organizational traits that are required to build, develop and foster thought leadership.
Thought leadership is not something that simply happens. It is a conscious choice by the leadership of the company to drive an industry. It underpins a culture of external communication and messaging and embraces professional development in the belief that thought leadership will set the company apart from its competitors and deliver real, sustainable advantage to its customers and stakeholders.
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