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What is the Definition of Thought Leadership?

What is the Definition of Thought Leadership?

Russ Klein


AMA CEO Russ Klein on the importance of taking original, principled stands to inspire others

One way to think about your career is to decide whether you want to build your value—that which you bring to an enterprise or society—on what you know or what you do. Put another way: Are you interested in being respected and valued for your knowledge or your actions?

Both of these elements are necessary for true progress. But it’s the tension between the two that interests me most. I’ve spent the past two years working on an update of “The Knowing-Doing Gap.” First conceptualized by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton in the 1990s, it explores how to turn talk into action.

In fact, as we move through the challenges presented by a global pandemic, bridging the knowing-doing gap may be more important than ever: The world needs brave leaders.


The premise of Pfeffer and Sutton’s work is that too many firms possess an overabundance of data and knowledge, but they can’t seem to get things done, whether it’s introducing products or implementing initiatives. But isn’t it still important to be a thought leader in addition to an effective doer?

My good friend Andy Crestodina, co-founder and CMO of Orbit Media, recently shared with me his freshly minted report and analysis on thought leadership. He surveyed and interviewed marketing thought leaders about what constitutes thought leadership.

Andy and I both enjoy challenging what I call “suitcase words,” which I define as words people carry and throw around with the assumption that everyone else understands these terms to mean the same thing—but seldom do. Thought leadership falls under my definition of suitcase words. (One of my other favorites? “Strategy.”)

Sure enough, the results from Andy’s survey show that there is little unanimity as to what defines a thought leader. Some common themes emerged, but I can’t say I agree with most of them.

Andy asked me how I would define a thought leader. After answering and reviewing the report, I admit I felt somewhat redeemed after seeing how closely my answer was to Seth Godin’s. Like Godin, I feel a great thought leader is an inspiration to others. And you can’t inspire unless you’re willing to take occasional stands. It creates an inherent presence of tension, which I’ve long asserted is the one common denominator to all great communication.

This leads directly to what I believe is the second quality of thought leadership: originality. In 1998, while working with Gatorade, I introduced the theory that tension is required for effective advertising. I brought the concept to 7-Eleven and refined it in 2003 when joining Burger King. Not long after, I introduced the concept to a larger audience at a Marketing Science Institute consortium. MSI converted it into teaching materials for its members, and I believe it remains active.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has since written in a similar manner about tension in advertising, and I was once the No. 1 Google result for searches of “tension in advertising.” While, admittedly, it pinches a little that I no longer rank as the top result for such a search, it does beg the question: Does a thought leader need to be famous? I don’t believe so. History is filled with anonymous thought leaders—but it doesn’t reduce the value of their work.

Few things have frightened me more in my career than being unoriginal. There must be more than a hundred thousand business books that restate the same concepts using different facades. The rest of us fall for the new packaging of old ideas, fearing that we’ll otherwise miss a hot idea. It makes me think of a quote from George Eliot: “Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact.”

But another high-ranking item on my list of fears is being unwilling to take principled stands. The notion of tension shouldn’t be mistaken for being decidedly combative at every turn, nor for creating commotion just to gain attention. Principled assertions stand the test of time and leave a mark. They require managerial courage, which is too precious a commodity in enterprises today.

To answer Andy’s question, here’s my definition of a thought leader: an original and inspired thinker who takes principled stands, and as a result introduces the element of tension that draws others to them.

As we wade through the new world we now face, let’s also not forget to allow our inner angels to emerge and help us embody our best selves and become the leaders society needs now.

Image by Peter H from Pixabay.

Russ Klein is a five-time award-winning CMO who has quarterbacked teams for many of the world’s foremost brand names, serving as president of Burger King from 2003-2010 and holding top marketing and advertising posts at Dr. Pepper/7UP Companies, Gatorade, 7-Eleven Corporation and Arby’s Restaurant Group. He is also the former CEO of the American Marketing Association.