by GDI researcher Zhan Li

One of the ways that the work of the GDI Thought Leaders rankings team has been pioneering is its development of a new definition of thought leadership itself. Crucially, thought leadership is not just about influence in GDI’s definition: “a living person who works primarily as a thinker, and is known and influential beyond the borders of their discipline.” This definition is not only fundamental to the construction of the rankings but also provides a way of rejuvenating the power and usefulness of the term more broadly. Like many buzzwords, the term “thought leadership” has become so popular and used in such a wide-ranging variety of contexts, often in rather superficial ways, that it has faced criticism about its usefulness and alleged shallow faddishness. One of the term’s key problems is that it seems to many people that there is no fixed definition. In the business knowledge and branding background where the concept first took root and is still most commonly found in, this sense that there was no fixed meaning encouraged people to come up with their definitions suited to their purposes as the term’s popularity grew. (Still others use the term without giving it, well, too much thought.) So many possible ways of defining thought leadership have been asserted, driven too by how even corporations and organizations as well as individuals have branded themselves as thought leaders.

The term in its modern popular usage was first coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, the Founding Editor of Strategy+Business magazine (published by the American management consulting company Booz & Company) for the “Thought Leaders” series of one-to-one interviews with high profile businesspeople, academics, and authors. Kurtzman, who in 2000 received the Global Indira Gandhi Prize for his work on promoting thought leadership, defined “thought leader” as someone who has “some new important ideas that are worth sharing and that have real application… When I think of thought leaders, I think of people who are coming up with creative new insights that can be applied.” Later, when he was interviewed in 2013, Kurtzman complained that the concept had become “utterly devalued”: “It’s used for everything now. There are thought leaders of ice cream flavours! Every company has its thought leaders. And in many cases, the thought leaders have no real experience in the industry they are supposedly leading. They have barely scratched the surface in terms of their reading, their knowledge or ideas. And they are rehashing the past. At best, the term has really been watered down.”

GDI’s definition reconceives and revives the concept of “thought leader” not only by emphasizing that it must be centred on an individual’s creative intellectual endeavours—in any realm of knowledge, not just business—but also by underscoring the importance of those endeavours’ network power to reach out across boundaries to influence and cross-pollinate with ideas in diverse fields.

As the scholars Read Diket and Sheri Klein have noted, Kurtzman’s concept of thought leadership was conceived at the dawn of the Internet’s popularization. It is not clear how much Kurtzman appreciated the ways the proliferation of new networked information and communication technologies would reshape thought leadership. To better grasp the continuing and evolving potential of thought leadership is to consider the great acceleration and expansion of the circulation of ideas enabled by the Internet revolution.

GDI’s definition of thought leadership is reinforced by the deep analysis of online networked discourse underpinning the rankings. This demonstrates how the vast information landscape of the internet can help rather than hinder us in distinguishing effectively between strong thought leadership and its watered-down versions. And as we look to the future, with ongoing transformations caused by participatory and social media, we can also anticipate the erosion of old hierarchies and institutional biases that most thought leadership still reflects. In contrast to traditional concepts of intellectual authority and institutional expertise, thought leadership seems to becoming increasingly non-hierarchical in the networked era, and open to entry and mixing by a far greater variety of participants and contexts– from well beyond the professional services consulting context of its birth. As Diket & Klein argue, the social media ecology of the Internet today has amplified and intensified thought leadership as a system of emergence for ideas and their influence. GDI’s definition, combined with its network analysis methods, is a powerful tool for understanding how that emergence can be evaluated across many diverse knowledge domains and cultural contexts.