thinking that matters

and May 25, 2017

Fascinating, enthralling, and scintillating. These are some of the attributes we assign to individuals such as Ram Charan, Noam Chomsky, J K Rowling, and Stephen Hawkins; and organizations such as Apple, Google, NASA, and Khan Academy. Not only do these individuals and organizations benefit from ample media coverage and limelight, they are the go-to, top-of-mind people that others seek for inspiration, insight, information, and innovation.

They are the people whose books grab your attention at F the airport bookstore; they are the organizations that ignite trends that ripple through industries and shape the future. Their ideas have a viral quality to them and TED is full of them.

But what does it take to become a thought leader and how can organizations develop internal thought leadership capabilities for superior value generation and performance?

thought leadership in action

Being a recognized authority in a particular field is more than just making great presentations. Credible thought leaders are visible, intensely active, and ‘on the pulse’ around key topical issues emerging in their field of expertise. They use keynote presentations, conferences, high visibility platforms, and relevant pro-bono work as opportunities to amplify their ideas and create a strong, dedicated fan base eager to road-test their insights. Furthermore, they fortify their thinking by providing cutting-edge research that reveals surprising and sometimes counter-intuitive perspectives, new value-generating processes, and operative practices that accelerate the transition from idea to reality.

What makes thought leadership particularly intriguing and captivating is the ability to reveal previously unseen or hidden relationships in complex situations. The ability to make connections that others cannot see creates new worlds of possibility. Google is a case in point. The genesis of the firm started with Larry Page taking a different view of the emerging potential of the internet compared to the get-rich-quick startups at that time. Viewing the internet as a universe of nodes (computers) interconnected via web pages generated new possibilities of navigating the new information medium.

developing unique perspectives

Central to the practice of thought leadership is curiosity— the ability to explore phenomena across multiple, diverse disciplines, and perspectives. This implies that thought leadership is not a solitary activity. It is not about some guru sitting atop a mountain having ‘ah-hah’ moments.

The practice of thought leadership involves collaborating and catalyzing powerful ‘what if ’ thinking with other experts. In the process, they use other people’s minds to accentuate their own and create new depths of thought.

Put another way, thought leaders stand out as unique individuals because they carve out new paths through an ocean of conformity, very often by using others as inspiration or muses.

Boston Dynamics, a US-based engineering firm, is an example of future thinking. At the nexus of their products is the interface between mobility, agility, and dexterity found in animal movements and cutting-edge technology. Using sensor-based controls and advanced computation, they have been able to unlock complex organic mechanisms to create remarkably lifelike humanoid robots capable of performing complex tasks with applications in both military and at home.

To earn the respected status and stature of ‘thought leader’ requires the person or organization to effectively address and overcome any potential negativity. Their ideas must powerfully address the likely resistance and inertia they will encounter, especially from other intelligent minds.

rating thought leadership

Not all thought leadership is the same. The best and most attractive ideas share the following characteristics:

01 The idea is both credible and relevant to the issues being tackled

02 A new ‘opening’ is created that advances, improves, or solves problems followers of the idea are facing

03 Industry practitioners perceive the idea as worth investing their time, effort, and money

Indeed, the best game changers are those ideas which start as pixels of possibility and are then crowd-developed into a range of applications. This is the case in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data, IoT, robotics, and platform thinking. The combinatorial impact of these emerging fields is ruthlessly rewriting the futures of many traditional incumbent businesses. The impact is wideranging across many industries as disruption becomes the new normal.

developing the corporate mastermind

Used effectively, thought leadership can be a potent approach to driving corporate growth. Sharing valuable knowledge with existing and new clients can fuel new opportunities for collaborative consulting, business model reinvention, and packaging of new business practices.

a case study

Infusionsoft, an Arizona-based online sales and marketing startup that has grown substantially into a half-billion-dollar company using innovative thinking to drive its own business as well as its customers’, is a prime example of a vision-driven company.

Founded in 2001 and backed by a number of leading investors including Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital, the business has expanded from a tiny, strip-mall office to a modern, high-tech campus in Arizona’s Silicon Desert with annual revenues exceeding $100mn and over 650 employees.

Co-founders Clate Mask, a New York Times best-selling author recognized by the small business community as a visionary leader, and Scott Martineau are constantly searching for external thought leadership that would provide the firm with an edge—from high-profile speakers such as Simon Sinek for their annual ideas conference to provocative personal executive coaches.

from a practical standpoint, firms can drive thought leadership in the following ways:
leadership advocacy Promote the importance of thought leadership capabilities within the firm as a key contributor to future success.
create a thought

leadership practice

Establish a dedicated business group to focus on a portfolio of topics both relevant to the company’s strategic goals and to the industries inside which the business operates.
establish an innovation


Generate opportunities for multidisciplinary group meetings and develop dialogs that can leverage diversity of thought, exponential ideas, and design reality-testing hypotheses.
fund high-value research Provide funding and support for initiatives that could generate credible and valuable insights that impact client performance.
position the brand Help clients articulate their problems and design breathtaking solutions that make tangible differences to their situations.
platform visibility Deliver high-quality, data-driven original research to the right audiences, both online and offline to maximize exposure.
focus on inbound leads as

opposed to sales

Whilst thought leadership should not be used directly as a selling tool, it is a powerful pre-sales tool. It creates opportunities for ‘selling without selling’, especially to sophisticated customers.

keeping thought leadership important

Thought leadership can mistakenly occur like a ‘luxury’ in times of an economic slowdown or crises. During troubled times, it is natural for businesses to reduce costs and focus on sales generation. What is often overlooked in these market conditions is the importance of preparing for the next cycle of generating new directions and using thought leadership as a driver for product/service leadership. Those firms that use thought leadership to spur innovation have an advantage.

Despite their recent negative publicity, Uber announced its plans to team up with aviation companies to demonstrate flying cars, in Texas and Dubai by 2020. For those of us old enough to remember, the Jetsons lifestyle is rapidly becoming a reality.

As the business reality shifts, it is imperative that organizational thinking does the same. Survival is about capturing the future. In the machine-learning algorithmic future accelerating towards us, enhanced market perception and imagination are the mental faculties that will matter most. It is those thoughts that shift growth patterns and craft new business narratives that will define the next era.

* Gartner Group, Marketing Essentials: How to Use Thought Leadership marketing report, 2010