Thought leadership

Some Serious Thoughts about Thought Leadership

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

Thought leadership requires a powerful idea, the conviction and communication skills to convey it convincingly and the opportunity to express it.

Clear thinking and leadership are too often examined separately. However, powerful ideas without effective messengers are wasted energy. Effective messengers without powerful ideas are wasted vessels. Effective messengers of powerful ideas without platforms are wasted opportunities.

In her latest book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” Doris Kearns Goodwin traces the paths to greatness of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. All four yearned deeply for greatness and displayed strong leadership traits at an early age. However, they didn’t become great until they found their issue and pursued it with conviction, skill and resolve. For Lincoln, that issue was the extension of slavery.

Almost everybody is familiar with Lincoln’s story, but it is often forgotten that he spent the decade before his election in 1860 as president in a political wilderness. Lincoln devoted himself to his law practice by day and to deepening his knowledge about philosophy, science and math by night. It was the equivalent of a self-taught graduate course on everything.

Sensing the nation was lurching toward a crisis on the issue of extending slavery into newly minted western states, Lincoln plunged into the subject, including reading every commentary on slavery written by the men who framed the US Constitution. While riding circuit in central Illinois, Lincoln quietly became the leading US expert on the subject of the legal footing of slavery in America.

Lincoln’s views on slavery changed markedly from when he served one largely undistinguished term in Congress. The change came after a “long period of work, creative introspection, research and grinding thought,” according to Goodwin. 

Mastery of a subject, as Goodwin points out, is critical to leadership. “What is well-spoken must be well-thought,” she writes. Clear thinking is the product of hard work. “Without that labor, without that drudgery, the most eloquent words lack gravity and power.” His late-night homework enabled him to formulate a policy that would prevent the extension of slavery, while allowing it to remain in the Old South. Articulating that view from essentially the point of view of the Founding Fathers was striking for its originality and authenticity.

A key to Lincoln’s success in advancing this point of view was “his uncanny ability to break down the most complex case or issue into its simplest elements,” Goodwin explains. He honed this skill as a trial lawyer who reduced complicated legal matters to language and concepts that could be conveyed in an intimate conversation with jurors. Lincoln made jurors feel as if they were trying a case, not him.

Another Lincoln trait was simplicity of expression. “His language was composed of plain Anglo-Saxon words and almost always without adornment,” Goodwin says. Lincoln also was an unequaled storyteller, whose captivating tales established rapport with listeners while delivering profound messages in easy-to-grasp punchlines.

Lincoln’s creativity, knowledge, conviction and ability to communicate would have gone for naught without a platform. He found one in debates with his Illinois arch-nemesis, Stephen Douglas. Public debates were the social media and cable news shows of Lincoln’s day. 

Even though Lincoln didn’t win a seat in the US Senate, his taking points altered the national debate on the extension of slavery – and arguably the course of US history.

Goodwin’s book traces leadership and crisis through American history – a Civil War, stifling monopolies and corruption, the Great Recession and civil rights. But her implied intent in the book is to force a deeper evaluation of where leaders come from and the traits that leaders share.

Thought leaders don’t have to be point persons on events of historical proportion. They can be people who foster greater understanding of perplexing social, economic or technological problems – and the people who provide potential solutions. Through subject mastery and elegant, authentic expression, thought leaders can communicate complicated subjects and move the needle on public awareness and support for a point of view. 

Thought leaders must have the conviction of their views, the ambitious drive to share their views and the resiliency to withstand criticism for their views. Thought leaders are the people in the public arena described by Teddy Roosevelt. They are out there, willing to endure wounds for what they believe in the service of bringing clarity or fresh perspective to a serious subject.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.


Ghost Bloggers and Thought Leaders

Ghost writers have their place, but they aren’t substitutes for thought leadership. If you’re the thought leader, you need to convey your thoughts.

Ghost writers have their place, but they aren’t substitutes for thought leadership. If you’re the thought leader, you need to convey your thoughts.

Ghost writers have existed for a long time and often go unrecognized for their works, which carry someone else’s byline. But passing off a ghost writer’s work as your own doesn’t equate to thought leadership.

Yes, chief executives are busy and don’t have time or the expertise to write every speech they are required to give. Drawing on staff resources to organize material and even craft the language is perfectly legitimate. But it isn’t thought leadership. 

Sometimes a leader has an idea for a book and seeks help to write it. John F. Kennedy was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, even though Ted Sorenson many years later confessed that he “did a first draft of most chapters” and “helped choose the words of many of its sentences.” Kennedy accepted credit for the book, but paid Sorenson for his work. Great idea for a book, but the actual book may not represent thought leadership by the book’s “author.” 

Perhaps one of the most famous ghost writers in American history is James Madison. Often dismissed as Little Jimmy to the vaulting Thomas Jefferson, it is widely known Madison “helped” George Washington write his inaugural addresses and shape some of the formative traditions of a new nation. Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton, also wrote under pen names most of the Federalist Papers defending the new Constitution, which they helped write. Through history, the ghost written words of Madison and Hamilton have exerted enormous thought leadership.

The point is that ghost writing – and its offshoot, ghost blogging – is not intrinsically bad or deceptive. It is necessary. But not being bad or deceptive and being necessary doesn’t make ghost-written work thought leadership. 

“You cannot be a thought leader,” writes Gini Dietrich, leader blogger for SpinSucks, “if the thoughts are not your own.”

Speeches and blogs have other purposes aside from thought leadership. They can share information or tell inspiring stories. Thought leadership is demonstrating special knowledge, unique insight or keen talent. Thought leaders don’t shout; they attract people to them by the power of their ideas and the elegance of their expression.

You can have the potential to be a thought leader without knowing it – or appreciating the value of being viewed as a thought later. This is where staff and even ghost writers have a role. They can assess an executive’s ideas from informal conversations, interviews and presentations and identify “thoughts” that could be molded into thought leadership.

Since thought leadership isn’t synonymous with great communications skills, ghost writers can help executives organize their thoughts and energize them with prose and visuals. They also can suggest staging and channels to promote thought leadership. You might call this assistance with packaging. But it still would be thought leadership if at its core were the insights of the executive who is portrayed as the thought leader. 

Another litmus test for thought leadership, according to Dietrich, who is the founder of a Chicago-based digital marketing firm, is whether the thought leader engages with the audience he or she attracts. 

‘One thing shouldn’t be outsourced is having someone else respond to readers,” she says, “If the piece is produced by a named human being he or she alone should answer comments, engage in discussion and spend time on the social networks where those readers hang out.”

The bottom line is that using ghost writers to generate content is perfectly fine. Just don’t pass it off as thought leadership. That’s something you have to do largely by yourself. 

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

The Thought Behind Thought Leadership

Thought leaders aren't circus barkers who scream for attention. They are men and women with rich experience or meritorious ideas that attract our attention."Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence, they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: "Thought Leader."

Columnist David Brooks said a thought leader is "sort of a high-flying, good-doing, yacht-to-yacht concept peddler." They are the go-to guys and gals who get invitations to speak to prestigious groups, participate in deep think-tank discussions and author widely shared op-eds in major newspapers.

The thought leader, Brooks says, "doesn't have students, but does have clients."

Despite the sardonic commentary by Brooks, thought leaders aren't all peppy cheerleaders for a cause they are paid to embrace. Many thought leaders are, well, thought leaders in their field. They can be recognized experts or just average people with meritorious ideas.

The Architecture of Effective Content

What you say is important, but how you arrange it and make it useful to your audience is what really counts.Engaging content is an impressive, effective way to strut what you know. While it is important where you post your content, it may be more important to consider how you organize it.

Blogs, white papers, case studies, webinars and books are established venues for thought leadership. But you won't necessarily connect with your intended audience unless you package your ideas in a way that attracts and sustains attention and delivers useful information of value.

In all likelihood, your audience isn't all alike. Some people will want the top-line details of what you have to say. Others will want more detail. Some may want the whole magilla. The architecture of your presentation should simulate an onion. The more you peel, the more layers you find.

Effective website design capitalizes on layered information, but there is no reason it cannot be incorporated into all thought leadership content.

The most readable blogs are shorter and to the point, but they can add depth and detail, without extending the length, by inserting charts, infographs and links. In addition to providing the motivated viewer with more information, charts and infographs offer visual variety and lengthen the time someone looks over your blog.

White papers are usually 10 pages or longer, which can be a lot to read for the casual viewer. The key here is providing a quick synopsis up front of what's in the white paper. Liberal use of subheads will break up the copy and make the content easier to digest. A good way to add emphasis to points are pull-out quotes or small vignettes that illustrate your point, which can be positioned to the side of the main content, much like a newspaper sidebar. A bibliography and links can fill out the white paper's potential to deliver a large-scale pop.

The advent of e-books creates an opportunity for a multi-media, updatable content platform. Unlike a traditional print book, an e-book can tell a story using words, photography, podcasts and video.

Case studies don't have to be dry, self-aggrandizing commercials. They could be in the form of a SlideShare presentation that resembles a TV commercial, with a quick explanation of the problem, what you did the solve the problem and a testimonial by the customer or client you helped. You can always back up the movie version with a more traditional case study narrative, which provides specifics on your research techniques and communications strategies.

Webinars have become commonplace because they allow people from a wide geographical area to attend while sitting at their desk or in a coffee shop. Too often, webinars take the form of college class lectures, with an invisible talking head. Other than questions emailed to someone who filters through them, there is typically little interaction. Instead of telling webinar participants what you know, a novel approach might to use one or more examples and show them how you work, encouraging group engagement as you proceed. This way, your attendees go from listening to the master to watching the master work her magic.

Original content is a persuasive tool. But how you say it is as important as what you say. You can achieve the optimal result if you think in advance of how to arrange your content to appeal to all of your viewers. The arrangement you choose should reflect what your viewers want to know, not just what you want to say.

Original Content is King

When you share content from other sources, you are sharing other people's thought leadership, not your own. The antidote: write about what you know.

For talent-strapped organizations, content curation has come to mean surfing the Web, finding relevant material and reposting it on your blog or website. There is nothing wrong with seeing what others are saying. But it doesn't say much about you if you just parrot what others write.

Original content is the best — and perhaps only — way to demonstrate your thought leadership. Original content is based on your experiences and reflects your point of view. It is your expression, not a counterfeit.

Borrowing a theme or imitating an approach is as old as, well, Shakespeare, who plucked his plots from ancient texts. But what you do with what you borrow is what counts. No one would say Shakespeare plagiarized Plutarch even though he borrowed some of his words.

Your thought leadership goal should be to project your unique experience or value propos