The Age of Thought Leadership

Thought leadership. Personal branding. Buzz words in social media. But there’s meat on these bones. I’ve had so many conversations  in the past few weeks surrounding the the value of social media that I figured I better write it down. These conversations with friends and colleagues revolved around the topics of thought leadership, knowledge abundance and the nature of employment in the 21st  Century.

Over the past decade we’ve seen a fundamental shift in the nature of thought leadership and expertise. Forty years ago if I were looking for an expert I’d generally find him in one of two places: a major corporation or a university. Looking for an expert on business process? Try Wharton or a Big 8 (yeah, remember that?) accounting firm. Looking for an expert on technology? That would be IBM, AT&T or MIT. For the bulk of the 20th Century thought leadership generally resided with entities rather than individuals.

The turn of the 20th Century brought us the Industrial Revolution and innovation in areas such as education, leadership, employment and social interaction. One hundred years later, at the turn of the 21st Century, we are in the grips of the Information Revolution. And it’s not just about computers and technology. A fundamental shift has occurred in thought leadership. Experts. Individuals who are the expert on a particular subject area. And the road to leadership is paved with the radical idea of giving away expertise.

The Road to Thought Leadership
Michael Fauscette recently wrote a piece entitled Redefining Leadership in the Emerging Social Business Environment. He uses a great term: “content liberation.” I also refer to it as “knowledge abundance.” In either case we are talking about the concept of openly sharing content.

Why is sharing content important? Content is the currency of the Information Age. We are living in an age of unprecedented access: for consumers, access to content; for creators, access to an audience. The fact is there is more content being created now then at any time in the history of the world.

So how do you become a thought leader outside the bounds of big corporations or academia? “If you build it, he will come” is the ghostly refrain in Field of Dreams. Anyone with a keyboard can write a blog and work the social media circles (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.), but you do have to have something interesting to say. The Information Age is a meritocracy. Write something interesting and people will read it. Write it consistently and you develop a following. The easiest way to turn off your audience in the social media milieu is to try to sell something. Give out some advice, expertise, entertainment and you are on your way to creating value in the marketplace: a personal brand.

Clearly, thought leadership is more than just a popularity contest. Write a blog and get some followers on Twitter and “poof!”, you’re a thought leader? Not quite. There are many individuals with unrivaled expertise in a given subject who are not recognized as thought leaders. Generally, it’s because their expertise is serving to boost someone else’s brand (see 20th century expertise model above).

Here’s the key: the Information Age is allowing experts to step out from behind the veil of a corporate (or academic) entity, create a personal brand, establish themselves as thought leaders and still remain relevant in the marketplace!

Personal Brands and Thought Leadership
The impact of personal brands will have far reaching consequences in the nature of employment in the 21st century. It’s opened up new avenues for career growth and is causing employers to rethink traditional management principles and archetypes. Here are some examples of this new paradigm:

  • IT analyst Merv Adrian spent many years creating a reputation as a top analyst in the area of Enterprise Data Management. He left Forrester Research, a major technology and marketing research company, and  has been an independent analyst for over a year now. By his own count he had over 40,000 hits on his blog in the first year and continues to be a powerful, relevant force in the marketplace.
  • Jeff Gomez, the CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment started with a typical 20th century career path eventually working as a producer for Acclaim Entertainment’s comic division. His projects were  extraordinarily successful – his work with Turok, Dinsaur Hunter helped the franchise gross $420 million – but it did little to bolster his personal brand. In 2000 Jeff decided to strike out on his own. With only a small cache in his personal brand it was an uphill battle to prove himself. What did he do? He gave it away. He established his expertise through successful engagements with renowned brands like Microsoft, 20th Century Fox and Coca-Cola,  and built his brand through blogs, social media sites, and speaking engagements. Today, Jeff is considered a thought leader in transmedia, a concept that is sending powerful ripples throughout the entertainment world.

Knowledge Abundance
How do Jeff Gomez and Merv Adrian continue to achieve this success? By giving it away. Yes, it’s true you need to have something of value to give away. They continue to create content that serves to burnish their status as thought leaders in their respective fields.

The business model for the 21st century must take into account thought leadership and personal branding. What is this model? Is it agile individuals who band together for specific projects and then disperse? Or is it groups of like-minded individuals who dock their personal brands to each other to create an entity greater than the sum of it’s parts, driven by a leader who understands what Fauscette calls the “social business model?”

Now, more than ever, one person with an idea really can change the world. Think about it.