The three dimensions of thought leadership
Updated: May 24, 2019
Traditionally, thought leadership is correlated with futurism, making predictions about what the future will be like and the implications for how you should act in the present.
However, looking at a wide range of case studies in thought leadership it is easy to see that the future is just one orientation. I analysed over 20 published examples of best practices in thought leadership to develop the model shown below.
The time dimension places thought leadership on a spectrum from the future to the present. In this frame, it is possible to see how one can take a thought leadership position on what is happening in the present day.
I came across a good example of this in form of a thought leadership article about the design of hotels and micro-rooms, arguing a need to cater for the attitudes of the increasingly influential millennial generation. There was nothing particularly futuristic about the leadership position, but it set the organisation apart by providing insight arising from a current industry driver.
The hotel example gives rise to another aspect of thought leadership - being the uniqueness dimension. Some people think thought leadership is all about creating a vision that is completely new to the world.
By virtue of being highly innovative, these proponents of the leadership position are likely to be the technical leaders in the field, often with an initial monopoly on the space and this is the basis of the competitive position.
However, the hotel example shows that you don't have to be highly innovative to take a leadership position. You can take a position that other's may also share but compete aggressively to own the space, to become synonymous with the thought you are promoting.
From my analysis, it is clear that the vast majority of thought leadership material is not original and is actually competing with others who may in fact be more technically competent. In this sense, it is possible to be a thought leader simply by creating the perception you are the leader, though the use of superior marketing. Indeed, this approach is what most campaigns run by marketers end up looking like.
There is nothing wrong with "perception is reality" approach and it serves as a warning for less sophisticated thought leaders who may over invest resources in developing innovative new services and products, only to find others high-jacking their success.
A final aspect is the attitude dimension. Much thought leadership, especially that developed by technically oriented organisations, is based on a cognitive or logical argument. Typically the materials are based on surveys, research and quantitative data used to back up any claims. Such thought leadership has its place and can obviously be compelling when presented clearly. However, there is a strong risk of losing the edge of influence through getting drowned in detail.
The affective end of this spectrum employs emotion to influence the audience. A great example of this was the Dove campaign for Real Beauty. This campaign took a stand on the unrealistic standards of beauty, driven by the fashion industry and entertainment industries. By taking a stand in a powerful way on this emotive issue, with innovative marketing tactics, Dove was able to increase the sales of its products by 9% in one quarter and double them over 10 years, without ever explicitly trying to sell its body care products.
By and large, most leadership positions are a combination of positions on these three dimensions. The hotel example is competing and now, while someone talking about quantum computing would be creating and distant.
Each orientation of thought leadership has it own challenges. For example, a key challenge with future oriented thought leadership is to not to be too far ahead of the acceptance curve. Take climate change. If you had taken a leadership position on human-induced climate change even as little as a few years ago, you probably would not have gained much traction with your campaign and may even have done more damage to your brand than good.
However, there is a tipping point where “who dares wins”. For example, Al Gore changed the entire debate around climate change with his film “An inconvenient truth”, arguably at a time when social attitudes to the subject were just starting to change to the broader consensus achieved today.
Other challenges include the need to be different without being esoteric and taking a stand without being too opinionated.
Possibly the key balance that needs to be addressed is the size of the niche you are targeting with your thought leadership. If you try to target the whole world, your message may become too diluted to be influential.
Conversely, if you target a very specific subject, your target market may be too small to justify the investment.
As you can see there is a huge range of options to be considered in developing a leadership position. Consider which end of the spectrum your position is aiming for in each of the above dimensions. You may choose to focus exclusively on one dimension or combine two or three of them. Being clear about your positioning will make the job of developing collateral much easier.