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ACG Research
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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What Makes a “Thought Leader”?

“Thought leader(ship)” is a term that is used frequently in the market research/industry analyst world, especially in technology – the area I know best. Unfortunately, its frequent use, in combination with a vague definition, has created the current state of affairs: it is essentially a meaningless term that is used to impress nonexperts.

I have to admit that 1) Wikipedia has a good definition: “business jargon for an entity that is recognized for having innovative ideas” and 2) I am guilty of using this term for self-promotion reasons. However, I still do not like it, and I will promise to stop.

I think my problem is that these are two words that do seem to belong together. It feels forced, like a gunshot wedding. What is a thought? What is a leader? How can a thought be a leader? Can a leader be a thought, perhaps?

O.K., I admit, my rant will not stop the use of “thought leader,” and I will probably slip up and use it to describe myself once in a while. However, let’s try to set up ground rules for its use.

If you use the term “thought leadership,” define what you mean. Are you talking about being the first to publish an idea? Are you seeing trends that no one else sees? Are you providing non-obvious insights? Are you drawing conclusions that set you apart from the crowd? Do you defy conventional wisdom beyond just being a contrarian? Do you have unique processes or algorithms?

Can you back up your claim of leadership? Can you show a track record of being first or among the first to call a trend? Can you provide examples of unique analysis or non-obvious insights? Claims of leadership always seem suspect to me. As an analyst, you read press releases from tons of companies and it seems that everybody in the tech world claims to be a “leading provider” of their product or service. The absurdity is apparent: it is not possible for everyone to be a leader. Also, I have noticed that the true market leaders generally do not use the word to describe themselves.

Also, if you consider yourself a “thought leader,” are you open to other points of view? Do you admit that you may have missed something or may be wrong even if your reasoning is sound? Is your certainty also a set of blinders? I ask these questions because thought leaders are supposed to be the “advance scouts” of their industry and disruptive innovation often comes from outside the narrow confines of the traditional market. For example, Twitter’s sudden popularity is more than a consumer messaging service, it has changed the way companies should be running their customer service function, and is in many ways more important than their CRM vendor. Also, ten years ago, the people running the land line telephony business did not consider mobile phones to be a serious replacement threat. In today’s world, very few people under the age of 30 has a land line.

Please let me know what you think. I would like to hear back from my colleagues in the market research/industry analyst world and the people who consume the research and data. It should be a good conversation.

David Dines

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