A version of this article appeared originally on Spin Sucks.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
– Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Recently, I read an article about what marketers get wrong about thought leadership. The problem, the author suggested, is they pump out truckloads of generic content that all says pretty much the same thing as the next marketer’s truckload of generic content. The secret to being seen as a thought leader, he posited, is to do a better job of forging connections with stakeholders by finding out the kinds of questions they are asking and “developing thought leadership” that responds to them.

This advice (See also: circular definition) stuck in my already jam-packed craw because it reminded me of practically every other article out there about how to be a thought leader. Specifically, it treated thought leadership and content marketing as one and the same.

That was true when the steam train and Pony Express were the most effective means of spreading ideas. In 1878, the essayist, lecturer and staunch abolitionist Ralph Waldo Emerson was described as manifesting “the wizard power of a thought-leader.” A few years later, the eternally optimistic preacher and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher was described as “one of the great thought-leaders in America.” Writing and speaking about the critical issues of the day was thought leadership back then. It’s all there was.

Thought Leadership 1.0

That remained true right up through the waning years of the BG (Before Google) era. A few bylined articles and a couple of speeches at industry conferences was still all it took for the PR department to anoint a previously uninspiring executive as a thought leader. That was OK, because the goal was mainly to generate more media exposure and speaking invitations on whatever topic was near and dear to the executive’s heart. Audiences were small and segmented, and competition for eyeballs and eardrums remained limited. The term “thought leadership” was simply strategic shorthand. Executives who engaged in such activities didn’t need to call themselves thought leaders. The medium was the message, and the attention was its own reward.

Enter Google

The arrival of search engines changed everything. Any sentient being with a thought and an internet connection suddenly had access to a potential audience of millions (and soon billions) of people who now had a way to find them – and at virtually no cost to either of them.

Knowledge was completely and forever democratized. Anybody could claim to be a “thought leader,” anytime, anywhere, on any subject.

It’s All or Nothing

Therein lies the problem. If everyone is a thought leader, no one is a thought leader.

Consider this:

Does delivering high-quality content about how to use content effectively to become a thought leader make the author a thought leader on thought leadership, or a thought leader on content marketing?

The answer is neither.

At best, it positions the author as someone who has ideas, opinions and possibly even meaningful insight that can help others create more interesting and relevant content.

It’s helping. It’s generously sharing knowledge. It’s providing a point of view. It’s sharing expertise. It’s a lot of things.

But it’s not leadership.

Not when the internet is crawling with self-proclaimed mavens, gurus and trusted advisors all saying the exact same thing.

That’s not to say using content to demonstrate expertise and deep understanding of customers’ challenges and gripes isn’t a smart and valuable thing to do. But it makes somebody a leader as much as publishing a blog with grandma’s recipes makes them a master chef.

So What Does Thought Leadership Mean?

It means bupkis.

It’s a socially acceptable way to say, “My thoughts are better than your thoughts” without getting punched in the face.

It’s time to distinguish thought from leadership.

As Gini Dietrich said recently, thought leadership needs a new moniker. One that says what it is and doesn’t masquerade as a meaningless title. If content marketing lacks sufficient cachet, how about expert visibility, knowledge marketing or insight selling?

That’s step one: repackaging thought so it does what it says on the tin.

Step two is to bring clarity to leadership and what leaders do.

But first, let’s get an important “don’t” out of the way. Leaders don’t call themselves leaders. They don’t have to. Their behaviors give it away.

Leaders define the issues and challenges that are most critical to the stakeholders, industries and communities they serve, and channel their energy and intellect into addressing them. They use their influence to guide others toward common ground. They don’t just write and speak about issues, although that’s certainly part of the job description. They lead the dialogue and marshal constructive and collaborative action for change.

Some would call this thought leadership. I prefer to think of it as thoughtful leadership.

Leadership is About Behavior

We’ve identified five key behaviors of thoughtful leaders. We call it Leadership Architecturesm:

  • Dig deeply to uncover and define the issues that are most important to stakeholders. They may not be what you expect, or the ones the company would otherwise choose to address. Whatever it is, it must be as relevant to customers and other stakeholders as it is to the company’s vision, mission and strategic direction, if not more so.
  • Own the data that substantiate the issues, and become the principal source of that data and related insights for the media and others. Consider partnering with academic institutions or prominent non-governmental organizations to lend additional gravitas.
  • Be seen in the right company by aligning with credible third parties who complement and amplify the organization’s efforts and points of view. Professors, retired regulators and legislators, analysts and even other corporate leaders bring credibility and even greater attention.
  • Be the convener. Don’t try to solve every problem or own every discussion, event or public meeting. Being seen as the convener of respected people and organizations who come together out of mutual interest can be just as powerful.
  • Lead the dialogue, but don’t monopolize it. A confident leader is comfortable sharing the spotlight. Always vying for attention can drive off critical supporters and stakeholders. A steady flow of subtle reminders about the organization’s role conveys humility. Shouts from the rooftop exude an overinflated corporate ego.

Executives and organizations that engage in thoughtful leadership do not see it as marketing. Instead, they view it as an opportunity to meld vision, strategy and corporate responsibility to benefit something bigger than themselves. The motives need not be 100% altruistic, of course. Corporate initiatives that are seen to put stakeholders’ concerns ahead of competitive self-interests can enhance reputation and relationships, foster employee engagement and create a sustainable advantage with media.