Four common traits of the world’s top thought leaders.

Posted on April 4, 2016 by Alexandra Kent

Thought leaders are the rock stars of the B2B world. These inspiring, influential characters are at the cutting edge of their chosen field – shaping debates and shining new light on the knottiest challenges we face. We want to be them. We want to be associated with them. We want to put their insight into practice.

There is no single definitive list of the world’s top thought leaders but if you’re looking for inspiration there are some useful sources. Michael Porter tops Inc.’s list of The 15 Most Influential Thought Leaders in Business and the Thinkers50 2015 ranking of leading management thinkers. Strategy+Business magazine dedicates a whole section to thought leaders. And for influential marketers, check out CMO’s 2015 run-down.

Shadowing the rise of the celebrity thinker, “thought leadership” has been welcomed into the bosom of B2B marketing. For companies with complex products and services to sell, providing a client with genuine commercial insight and provocative thinking is the most effective way to market and sell. As a result, companies are spending significant time and money turning their people into thought leaders.

Let’s learn from the best. Here are four principles common to the world’s best known and most influential people:

  1. It’s not something you do, it’s something you are.

Thought leadership isn’t a white paper, a blog or a video – the outputs of marketing activity. It’s the outcome of the collective body of your thinking and your ideas. Everything we do as marketers contributes to positioning our people (and by extension our companies) as thought leaders.

  1. No one ever became a thought leader by playing it safe.

Revolution is baked in to the definition of a thought leader. Repeating the same ideas as everyone else makes you a “thought follower”. Thought leaders aren’t afraid to be first or loudest, they move a debate forward and are bold not bland.

  1. You don’t decide whether you’re a thought leader – the audience does.

In the words of Margaret Thatcher: “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” The same applies to thought leadership. The audience decides whether you’re a thought leader. How will you know? You’ll have a cult-like following, be invited to speak at the highest profile gatherings in your field, be sought out by top press for your view on relevant developments and will probably be cited in a university degree course.

  1. It takes ages to become a thought leader.

Becoming a thought leader is a life’s work. The most authoritative thinkers have dedicated their career to understanding and challenging a particular area – honing and updating their ideas over time to set and re-set the agenda. David Brooks described this with morbid amusement in the New York Times a few years ago. In the lifecycle of a thought leader, he said, reverence comes, cruelly, at the point of death.

For ideas on how to accelerate your own thought leadership status through game-changing strategy, ideas, and programmes, get in touch. We know what we’re talking about – our recent work with Arcadis has just been nominated for Best Use of Thought Leadership at the forthcoming MCA awards.


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