Thought leadership is a term that’s been overused to the point that our eyes may glaze over when we hear it, but we shouldn’t write it off yet. These days, stakeholders are increasingly looking to corporate leaders and business to have a strong position on issues that matter to the community.
The rise of the corporate thought leader
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce recently commented that companies and their leaders should be encouraged to speak publicly on important issues that shape our society because of the “implicit social contract between companies and communities”. ANZ Chairman David Gonski also defended this position, saying that while individuals should get permission from their company, they should be encouraged to speak up on social issues.
Corporate thought leaders such as Joyce and Gonski illustrate how individual and company values can coexist and even be mutually beneficial. Gonski’s powerbase, as one of Australia’s best-connected company directors, has enabled him to rise above fundamental challenges faced by ANZ, including a populist backlash against business and a shifting economy. Joyce, a public supporter of gay marriage, says Qantas speaks up on gender equality because the Qantas identity is the Spirit of Australia, and fundamentally the company supports the notion of giving people a fair go. Both have shown how individual thought leadership can be embraced by a company, and how this goodwill can be an expression of implicit company values.
However attractive it sounds, thought leadership is not without risks. Individuals and companies should expect their views to be challenged. And what if an organisation’s values are different to its leaders? Or a company isn’t clear about their values or how to communicate them?
While many companies regularly raise issues of interest to stakeholders, there are discernable traits that distinguish genuine thought leaders from individuals and companies that merely have a public voice.
Stakeholders may expect organisations to have strong positions on environment, social and governance issues, but not all issues will be right for a particular brand. True thought leaders that lead and create change understand the delicate balance that is required and the reciprocal nature of the relationships at stake.
Thought leaders in the digital age
Thought Leadership is a term first used by Joel Kurtman in 1994 to describe “someone who has ideas that merit attention”. In the past it inferred authority, knowledge and expertise. It has since evolved to encompass the notion of a trusted source who inspires people with innovative and ground breaking ideas. It’s more than just having a view on a subject or being an expert. The best thought leaders provide insight into an area that others haven’t thought of – delving into unexplored territory and being brave is what makes it valuable.
Becoming an expert is easier in the digital age. Search engines and social media have enabled many to gather knowledge and claim authority. However, a defining factor of thought leadership is the link between expertise, courage, passion and core values. Thought leaders are people who turn heads, attract followers and create loyal tribes.
If you get it right, the benefits of thought leadership for the individual and company can be substantial. Thought leaders can become the ‘go to’ person or brand in their field. It can lead to promotion of your ideas in the media, invitations to speak at events and join industry boards, and ideally, more customers who feel an affinity with your brand.