Thought Leadership Didn’t Kill the Management Guru. The Internet Did.
It’s no secret that more and more companies and individuals are seeking recognition as thought leaders in their industries. But are we seeing a decline in truly original, authoritative thinkers with the stature of a “management guru?” The Economist thinks so.
In an April 2015 piece called “Twilight of the Gurus,” the magazine noted that the guru industry had its “glory years” during the 1980s and 1990s and has since become rather lethargic, with no truly big management gurus appearing over the past decade. The magazine cites the digital revolution as a cause; the techno-geeks driving business change aren’t the most savvy wordsmiths out there, and they don’t tend to think broadly across industries or fields.
But there’s another cause, in The Economist’s view: “Perhaps the biggest enemy of guru renewal is the development of a ‘thought leadership’ industry.” So many companies are vying to establish their bona fides as thought leaders that they “end up just repackaging existing ideas instead of listening out for genuinely new ones.” And the public relations industry bears a good part of the blame: “Whenever companies treat thinking as ‘content’ and deploy their marketing and PR people to pump it out, the result is bound to be cliché or gobbledygook.”
There’s certainly no shortage of cliché or gobbledygook out there, but we shouldn’t lay it on the shoulders of PR people. By creating an abundance of information, the digital revolution makes it harder for anyone to stand out in any field. Has there emerged a rock band that truly rivals what the Beatles were during the 1960s? Or a television newscaster with the cultural stature of Walter Cronkite? Then why should we be surprised that a guru with the stature of Clayton Christensen hasn’t come along?
The Internet has democratized management thinking, just as it has democratized any other cultural or intellectual pursuit. That’s a good thing. Anyone today can conduct research, publish a book, and potentially command an audience, not just the sages at the great business schools. Big, original ideas are still out there today in profusion, but with all the subpar ideas out there, it’s just gotten harder to find them. If you’re an expert in a field, it’s also gotten harder to stand out among all the other voices.
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Steve Rubel, Chief Content Strategist at Edelman, makes a fruitful distinction between “subject matter experts” and true thought leaders. Many people might claim to be thought leaders who put out original ideas when in truth they merely collating, curating, synthesizing, simplifying, or distilling the existing pool of ideas in a field.
“Anybody who commits the time and the energy and has the connections and the know-how—and is publishing, too—can be a subject matter expert,” Rubel explains. True thought leadership, however, requires “access to some original resource or data that is not available anywhere else, that is proprietary. Perhaps you’ve done research nobody else has done. Or in the course of your work, you’ve had the ear of numerous CEOs, or you’ve had some other kind of long-term experience that others haven’t.”
Thought leadership is not about rehashing someone else’s ideas. It’s about re-creating scarcity in an informational field marked by abundance by drawing on original experience or expertise.
Christopher Graves, Chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations and 2015 Chair of the PR Council, likewise observes that true thought leaders “own a differentiated point of view backed up with serious expertise.”
Although many people might try to develop reputations as thought leaders, it’s not an easy task. It takes time and effort to develop a credible and authoritative perspective. “Real thought leaders are not ghost-written phonies.” They take on emerging topics that others haven’t thought about yet, and they aren’t afraid to boldly overturn conventional wisdom. They also solve real problems, going beyond the purely academic and what Graves calls “the cool or wow factor of ‘I had no idea…!’”
It may not be possible any longer to gain stature as a true “guru” in a discipline. But that’s not because thought leadership is somehow a false or vacuous concept, or because there is less original thinking out there. It’s because there are more ideas out there, original and cliché, high quality and low.
If anything, PR strategists like Rubel and Graves help their clients understand thought leadership better and deliver originality and value. With their involvement, the twilight of gurus might not be something to bemoan but rather a sign of a public marketplace of ideas that is more inclusive, dynamic, and healthier than ever.
Want more insight on how to establish yourself as a thought leader? Register for Dorie Clark’s “Speak Up, Stand Out” webinar today!
This is a guest post by Matt Shaw, Senior Vice President and Director of Communications for the PR Council. Matt runs communications for the U.S.’s only trade association for public relations firms. The PR Council connects the present and next generation of PR professionals, industry innovators and business leaders through education, events and industry resources.
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