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The Definition of "Thought Leadership"

Updated: Jul 1, 2022

The term “Thought Leader” became a buzzword and started to lose clarity of meaning when people adopted it to make their brand sound academic. Can a thought leader be someone who has read books, knows the theory, but has done nothing in the industry they are trying to be leaders in? Or are they a certain type of leader who is an expert in their field, has the respect of their peers, and has the experience to learn the lessons first hand. I searched out the internet to find out what others think and to understand the definition of thought leadership.

Why does the Definition of Thought Leader Matter?

I help leaders become known as ‘experts’ beyond their bubbles to build a personal brand. Recently, one of my clients retired from their CEO position for an international company and wants to restart his professional speaking career to share his knowledge and experience with the next generation of potential leaders. He has years of experience, successes, and stories to share. His knowledge is not theory. Thought he's well read, he used what he learned from the books and applied it to real world situations with new insights and real stories. What he has to share comes from being in the trenches of the corporate world not in the stacks of libraries.

When I Google Thought Leaders to understand the competition, I find many who have no actual ‘experience’ in any industry. Most never came close to the C-level of my client's career. Some barely have any life experience. Have I misunderstood the classification and made a mistake about what the term thought leader means?

Time to dive into the definition of thought leader to discover what I can about what makes someone a 'Thought Leader' in today's marketplace.

What is the Definition of Thought Leadership?

According to the Oxford dictionary, thought leadership is the “intellectual influence and innovative or pioneering thinking.” In this respect, anyone who can come up with an idea to improve upon a product, service, or industry is a thought leader. This is a very broad definition and does not help me position my client in the market.

Thought Leader was originally defined in 1994, by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of Strategy & Business magazine, “A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers, and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.” As a magazine editor having criteria makes choosing the person you want to interview for your publication clearer to both the journalists and the readership. This definition rings true to me. Does it mean the same thing after 30 years in the digital age? Or has the definition evolved based on what others 'think' it means and by using the term with their own definitions, changed it's meaning?

To discover what Thought Leader means into today's world, I did what we all do, I Googled "What is the Definition of a Thought Leader." Turns out the industry is debating the meaning and if it is different from influencer. I found the results of survey asking people what they believed 'Thought Leader' meant insightful to why there is a blurring of the lines and a lack of trust when it comes to people putting Thought Leader as a title on their LinkedIn profiles.

Here are some of the responses they received.

  • The discipline of leading others to think deeper, see wider, embrace new changes and developments.

  • Showing the True North and providing the pathway to get there.

  • Being recognized as an authority in a specific field.

  • Knowing what’s next.

  • Shining a light on new possibilities and the route to realizing them.

  • An idea that is talked about in ways that others may not have considered before.

  • An expertise in a specialized field which also serves to advance that field as it is known.

  • A striking point of view that sparks further thought and action.

  • Providing relevant, actionable insights on emerging issues and trends.

As you can see, the meaning has evolved or devolved from its original meaning. Their survey showed that to be a Thought Leader people didn’t need to be recognized by peers or be considered an industry expert by customers to be a thought leader, they just needed a strong personal influencer brand.

All it takes is adding “Thought Leader” to one’s LinkedIn profile for some people to believe they are knowledgeable, smart, and worthy of their attention.

For those, like me, who work to help people be seen as thought leaders and have years of experience, it takes more than a large social media following to be considered a ‘Thought Leader.’ According to Influencer marketing hub,one of the most vital requirements to be a thought leader is to have a clear, defined point of view…They make thoughtful, original contributions to the conversation on the topic. They also recognize trends in their field of expertise and provide insights to others.” When it comes down to it, what you know is important and what you know comes from the experience of doing it and being able to assess what happened, why it happened, and what one can learn from it. This definition sits better with me than someone who has parroted what they’ve read and since they have a larger following or more time to be on social media have made someone else’s ideas their own.

How I Define Thought Leadership

All thought leaders are influencers. There is no getting around the fact that when you are a thought leader you influence others. Not all influencers are thought leaders. Popularity does not make you a thought leader.

A thought leader is an ‘Expert’ and leader in their industry whom others within their company, industry, organization look up to. They are willing to share the lessons they’ve learned over the course of their life to inspire audiences. They are mentors, good communicators, and have credibility from the people who know them and have worked with them. Thought leaders have a responsibility to those who follow them because their advice can affect the life decisions of others, not just where they will go to eat. Thought leaders are in the role of being mentors and helping others to achieve success in their industries.

An Influencer is someone who shares their day-to-day life and has mad social media skills to gain a following. They use their story, image, and popularity to get their audience to do something – hit like, buy a purse, or eat at a restaurant. If they are successful influencers who switch their approach to telling people about how to be an influencer and sharing their tips and tricks, then they become a thought leader with influence.

Another group are motivators. They are skilled speakers, entertaining, and interesting individuals who use their charismatic speaking skills to share what they know from reading books, experience, or going through a tough time in life and coming out the other side with a new outlook, insight, or knowledge. Their stories are inspiring because they share how they made it through those things many people struggle with, or they have done something unique people find inspiring to help them move forward through their own struggles.

What are the Benefits of Being a Thought Leader?

In the Thinkers360 survey, they found most people were creating "Thought Leader" brands as lead generation and marketing for their companies. This makes sense considering what Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sir Richard Branson, and Elon Musk's personal brands have done for their companies. With strong personal thought leadership brands they were able to make their company brands into the exciting stories they are today. Their names will be forever linked to the corporations they founded, even when they aren't at the helms.

Investors invest in people whom they believe will be able to accomplish what they set out to do. I have a client who helps start-ups get to the next level and steps into various leadership roles within these companies. He has more knowledge about how to make a tech company successful in his little finger than I will ever be able to learn in a library. It’s my job to get him exposure in the media so others will know who he is and reach out to him to be a part of a company’s success story. As he gains exposure on various platforms, people get to know why he is the right person for the job and will want to invest in the company or become part of its community. This is how Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk were able to literally grow their companies to the stratosphere.

When my client was at the helm as the CEO of large insurance companies, he used his leadership position to talk with other leaders in the business on a podcast, which helped spread the reach of the company’s brand beyond their own audiences. Now that he has left the corporate world for his idea of retirement, he will continue his podcast and I will be reaching out to leaders in industry to fill his time slots.

The podcast has an opportunity to become a place for him to share his knowledge, stories, and the lessons he learned to those who want to listen. Though he is retired, he still has a lot to offer and still has many connections to reach out to for brand awareness. These platforms are popular and many people are tuning in to find those people who can help them make decisions, inspire them to take action, and entertain them along the way.

Brand Stories bring Opportunities to Thought Leaders

My personal brand story has brought me a lot of opportunities due to impressing people by showing what I can do, stepping up to help without asking for something in return, and building a dynamic digital footprint. When I take the time to focus on building my brand story, opportunities are soon to follow and some have put me into roles to help business owners learn how to tell their brand stories.

When the leadership of RAYL asked me to create a daily show to teach their community how to use the variety of RAYL brand storytelling programs, I created a platform where leadership’s stories can be told to audiences, where members can learn about Brand Storytelling, and be interviewed about their brand stories.

When you share your brand story and what you know, opportunities appear. One individual I know was offered a position as a VP of a household name brand company after the company's leadership heard him speak at a conference. When you are a thought leader, people respect you, trust you, and want to work with you.

A Conversation between Shannon Peel and Ernie Sander about thought leadership

My Client is an Inspirational Thought Leader

When I write the copy for my client's new website, his media kit, and his podcast. I will use the keywords "Thought Leader" because according to the original definition and current market's understanding of the word, he is a thought leader. He is a funny and dynamic speaker who audiences love to hear, he is an author, a podcaster, and is respected by those he worked with in the corporate world. I am excited about where his brand story will take him.

I love helping those who have an illustrious career, an inspiring story of overcoming unsurmountable odds, and those who have clawed their way out from dark places to become successful. My favourite clients are intelligent and accomplished people who want to leave a legacy to inspire others to keep moving forward in life. They have a lot to teach the world, interesting stories to share, and the life lessons they learned along the way. These people want their lives to matter, to give back, and inspire. They can’t help but become thought leaders because they have so much wisdom and find satisfaction in sharing it.

I feel honoured to have the opportunity to tell their stories.


Shannon Peel is a brand storyteller, content creator, digital magazine publisher, writer, and the Creative Entrepreneurial Owner of MarketAPeel.

Words Defined

What is an Entrepreneur? Can you define it? Is someone who starts a business automatically an entrepreneur? Can employees be entrepreneurs? What journey do entrepreneurs go on?

When this word made it into our common language, entrepreneur was a specific type of businessperson, is that still the case?

Media tells us stories about these amazing people called entrepreneurs who have made a lot of money and live a life most only dream about. We see these bigger than life extraordinary entrepreneurs who have created huge corporate organizations, which they still actively lead. Are they still entrepreneurs after their company becomes a juggernaut of processes & red tape? And if so, does this make every CEO an entrepreneur? Can anyone be an entrepreneur?

The answer lies in the definition of the word, however, the word itself has lost its meaning by being overused in all aspects of professional life.

Writers use emotion to motivate characters and move them through their story. The two strongest motivators for human behaviour are fear and love. Both are on either side of a weight scale and still interact to fuel each other

An author can use the fear of losing a love or a child to motivate a character into action. She can use the fear of never finding love to create conflict and depth in a character. Fear of being hurt by someone we love to keep a character stuck and distanced from their target; love. Fear of being loved so much that the character can’t reciprocate, can inspire self awareness or introspection.

We fear that which we do not control.

  • Fear of loss - We can’t control if something is lost or someone is lost

  • Fear of object - The object is in control of our response and our safety

  • Fear of future - No one controls time, the future, the past or right now.

  • Fear of the unknown - You can’t control what you don’t know

  • Fear of people - Can’t control the actions of others

  • Fear of public speaking - Your inability to control what they will say or think when they pay attention to you

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1 comentário

Manuel Murphy
Manuel Murphy
5 days ago

“Thought leadership” is a popular term in business that helps people understand how to make their brand sound academic. doodle baseball


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