The trade journal Communication published a book on Thought Leadership. What can we learn from the thought leadership experts? It's a matter of words and deeds.
**Definition of Thought Leadership**
The booklet (size A5, barely 70 pages) "Thought Leadership" is written by Mignon van Halderen, Craig Badings, and Kym Kettler-Paddock. They all bring years of experience in the communication or research field. Remarkable about the book is the precise definition of Thought Leadership. Many organizations like to be seen as a Thought Leader because it implies being an expert, skilled, reliable, knowledgeable, capable, an authority, a knowledge institute. The definition of the three authors is more specific:
Deliver a *novel point of view* that gets stakeholders to look at relevant themes in a new way, with the goal of providing them meaningful insights and solutions to their issues or problems.
This novel point of view (which I interpret as a revolutionary vision) typically challenges an existing paradigm. Dove expands the definition of beauty (all women are beautiful). A consultancy firm argues that a company's capacity for innovation is not determined by the size of its R&D budget, but rather by how the budget is utilized. (Some examples from the book are quite thin and commercial but are from IBM nonetheless.)
Such a new ideology taps into a trend or development that is relevant to all stakeholders. Thought Leadership aligns with the idea of having purpose. Companies *had to* have a mission that was socially responsible. This led to monstrosities like: "The Log Cabin, more than just daycare." (I hope that a daycare primarily focuses on properly caring for children.) Thought Leadership relaxes this trend: now it's also possible to communicate about a new vision, without the need for a (often far-fetched) societal mission.
**Advantages of the Revolutionary Vision**
Companies that articulate and promote such a revolutionary vision can become more attractive to stakeholders. The results of the thought leadership strategies of companies like General Electric, Philips, and IBM are unmistakable. On one hand, it leads to more sales, turnover, conversations, etc. On the other hand, employees seem more motivated because they are part of a company that wants to make a difference.
Most importantly, a Thought Leadership position appears to be the answer to the challenge many salespeople experience. The conversation with customers often revolves around products and services. By using a vision as a starting point, you can have a conversation about something other than a product. The consultancy firm Booz & Company calls Thought Leadership content a 'conversation starter with senior management.' This seems to be a sensible goal for this strategy: to enable new conversations.
**More Content for PR**
The benefit of having a revolutionary vision is that it's not only related to the company itself. This creates many more opportunities to utilize this content for external communication such as PR. Let's consider Tony Chocolonely as an example. The company's mission is not only to make slave-free chocolate more popular. The ultimate goal is that all chocolate becomes slave-free. That's already a revolutionary vision, with a clear purpose component.
Tony’s embarked on a bold experiment with Accenture to discover whether chocolate could be traceable through blockchain technology. By inviting all chocolate companies to use Tony's Open Chain, the company assumes a Thought Leadership position: it leads the way in a discussion. That blockchain adventure ended gracefully, but it led to numerous [international publications](https://www.forbes.com/sites/chelseadavis/2019/03/31/this-company-is-using-blockchain-technology-to-eradicate-slavery-in-the-chocolate-industry/#7ccbfde51407) and an even more distinct profile of the originally Dutch chocolate company.
**Requirements for Thought Leadership**
The resourcefulness of Tony's should not be underestimated. The biggest threat to achieving a Thought Leadership position is the gap between words and deeds. If you claim to hold sustainability as a high value, then it's necessary to also turn this into action.
An example of a company that failed to do this is BP. Initially, the oil company was ahead of the competition and the Kyoto Protocol when it came to investing in green alternatives and preventing CO2 emissions. Many consumers saw it as a greener company than its competitors. Until three disasters ended BP's green image, and the Thought Leadership position evaporated.
Thought Leadership is defined by these three authors as something other than just reaching an expert status. It is a revolutionary vision that is supported throughout the entire company. If that new vision is not implemented in practice, one can expect significant reputational damage. Formulating a revolutionary vision for the sector, society, or one's own company provides many opportunities for PR.