thought leadershipThe term “thought leadership” is slowly slipping into the gray anonymity of overuse. It seems like I’m seeing it used for everything from “how to solve world hunger” to “how to change your kitchen sink.”

The question that must be answered, in my (probably less-than) humble opinion is:

“What truly does define a ”˜thought leader’?”

I would argue that a good starting point would be what I describe to my students at Curry College, where I ride herd over our Public Relations Concentration, as an “opinion leader.” An opinion leader, as I tell my disciples, is someone whom you instinctively look to for guidance.

In very basic terms, this can be anything from “how should I dress for that PRSA meeting I’m attending?” to “what advice should I give my client or boss on dealing with the current dilemma facing us?”

But thought leadership takes this concept to a higher level by anticipating change, and offering a carefully-considered viewpoint that gives rise to further consideration, discussion, and action by others.

As communication professionals, we enjoy what I believe is an advantage in this area. Key among our many responsibilities is that of constantly monitoring the environment(s) in which we operate, and providing advice and guidance to clients or employers on emerging issues that we believe will impact their activities.

Whether you call it “thought leadership” or simply the time-honored moniker of “counselor,” the outcome is the same. We have given careful consideration to the matter, and we have arrived at a conclusion that we believe offers a clear direction for those affected.

We’re more than just a “how-to” source. We don’t just say, “This is what you do.”

Rather, we are the experienced travel planner who says, “Based on my experience and that of others, this is the path I would recommend you take to get to your destination.”

So, when you hear someone (your boss, perhaps?!?) cooing dreamily about a “thought leader” that he or she has met or heard about, take the time to reflect and research. What qualities does this individual possess that cause him or her to have been anointed as such?

Then do a self-analysis. 

  • Are you someone whom others approach with their “what do you think about…” questions?
  • Do you offer studied advice and counsel in meetings with colleagues or clients?
  • Or do you sit there quietly, nodding in what you think will be perceived as a wise manner, yet offering nothing to the conversation?

Thought leadership is about being an active participant at all levels of your profession, and being seen as a valuable resource for others to turn to.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things…of shoes-and ships-and sealing-wax-of cabbages and kings.” ~ Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass”

Image: Master Cheng Yen via Flickr, CC 2.0

Kirk Hazlett

Kirk Hazlett

Professor at Curry College
Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, holds the position of Associate Professor, Communication/ Public Relations, at Curry College. He also is a member of the Public Relations Society of America's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. Kirk has 35+ years' federal government and nonprofit organization PR experience, followed by nearly 10 years' undergraduate- and graduate-level college teaching experience. Some of the organizations he has counseled include the Blood Bank of Hawaii, Medical Area Service Corporation and Boston Harborfest. He blogs at A Professor's Thoughts.
Kirk Hazlett