I used to work with an organization that when the senior management team asserted something or made a decision, it was to be treated as gospel. In some organizations, a top down mandate can be an effective way to get people to start to move -- but not always! It made me crazy when the directives felt like they were based on the uninformed opinion of someone with a title, without providing any data to support the decision. It reminded me of the adage:

​“Without data you’re just another person with an opinion”.  And you know what they say about opinions? They are like @$$holes, everyone has one.

When a company’s vision and strategy are backed by data, it can help people in the broader organization get on board with the plan. However, what I have observed is there is something else (besides data) that needs to be added into the mix. There is an X factor required to be thought leader, it is that thing that inspires other people, a gained trust that gives us faith in the person and an ability to leap over the holes left by incomplete data.

When I wanted to write a blog about delineating the difference between uninformed opinions and what it means to be a thought leader, I decided to do some research into what other people are saying on the topic, I mean really – how many people claim to be thought leaders these days? Is it just another buzzword without much substance?

Here are some interesting tidbits that I found and wanted to share to help you assess yourself or someone else and determine if they are a thought leader:

1. What is a thought leader?

I found this definition of thought leaders here: Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success.

The most important words in that definition are: Informed opinions. Shouting opinions from the mountain top does not qualify one as a thought leader. But having a mountain of data to stand on does not make you a thought leader either. It must be a balance of both.

 2. Which comes first the opinion or the data?

In my research I came across this blog by Milo Jones and Philippe Silberzahn. In it they make some very interesting points, but my favorite was in the summary:  The only solution to make sense of this sea of data is to have hypotheses, i.e. to have an opinion that will guide research on the mass of data. They followed this assertion with a quote from Peter Drucker: “Without an opinion, you’re just a person with data. There are no facts unless one has a criterion of relevance.”

I think this is especially insightful, in the everything connected, IoT, Big Data, show me a chart on that world, one could easily get lost in the data, but having an opinion, a hypothesis to guide your head first dive into the data can separate you from your competitors. Just don’t let your opinion make you blind to what the data is really telling you!

 3. What does it take to become a thought leader?

In a great article by Neil Patel, he published a list of 9 Things True Thought Leaders Always Do.  I think the list is spot on, however, interestingly he makes no mention of data anywhere in his post but rather it is the track record of experience, success and expertise this has given them in their particular domain. This was an interesting point to me, as I talked about in a recent blog, I had a client that had previously been successful but hadn’t adapted their business to reflect where the industry was going. In this instance, his track record of success did not make him a thought leader because there was no applied learnings from industry changes, customer / investor feedback or indication that he could replicate the success in today’s market. 

Back to Neil’s article however, it is a great check list of things to work on if you want to be viewed a thought leader.  If I can be so bold, I would also add a 10th thing to the list: Always be learning. One might argue everyone should do that, but for thought leaders, I think there is a need to hold them to an even higher standard for learning and knowledge acquisition. It is not only important to be able to assert your informed opinion but be able to discuss its merits relative to other opinions in your domain.

4. Is thought leadership an individual or a team?

Michael Brenner published an article titled: 4 Questions to Ask When Thinking of Thought Leadership. In it, he states that thought leadership is a type of content marketing. I had to stop and let that sit for a minute. In many ways it made sense, a team or a collective experience could be packaged to show thought leadership on a topic or domain area.

Thinking about some of the brands that I have worked with over the course of my career and evaluating them against Neil’s list, Michael's assertions made sense. Maybe some organizations don’t need a single person to carry the torch, rather they can rely on a team or the entire organization to provide thought leadership. Michael says it like this: “The source is not as important as the content. Thought leadership doesn’t mean a big name from a big school, it means you provide the best and deepest answers to your customers’ biggest questions in the formats your audience likes to consume them.”

And there you have it, is there other criteria you would add to this list? Are you a thought leader or are you part of a team providing thought leadership?

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