Thought Leadership is a Synonym for Attention

I’ve been thinking about thought leadership lately.

Many smart people, including venture capitalist Brad Feld and Marketo cofounder Jon Miller, equate content marketing with becoming a thought leader.

Personally, I’ve never liked the term. It signifies some exalted guru status, and my 15 years of online content marketing suggest something much less exclusive.

Anyone can achieve business authority with content, if they truly want to. I’ve done it in several industries, starting as a complete unknown in each.

Still, when smart people speak, I listen. I decided to dig a little deeper into the concept of thought leadership, especially since I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it before on Copyblogger.

Turns out the term “thought leadership” was coined back in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz Allen Hamilton magazine Strategy & Business (a content marketing publication itself). Kurtzman used the term to refer to people “who had business ideas which merited attention.”

Attention. That’s the heart of the matter, isn’t it?

  • If you publish valuable business information that matters to prospective customers and clients, you can gain initial attention.
  • If you focus on providing that information continuously (just like a magazine), you can gain permission-based continual attention.
  • And if you provide relevant solutions, you can convert those prospects into new customers and clients from that attention.

So, go ahead and consider yourself a thought leader if you’re educating and motivating people with content. Because you’ve earned the scarcest of resources – attention.

Here’s the thing … this type of attention is derived from authority.

In the realm of content marketing, authority is demonstrated, not claimed. Which means leaders are not born or made — they’re selected by the intended audience (much more in line with my more egalitarian experience of how content marketing works).

If you have the attention of an audience, you’re a leader already. And great leaders plan, listen, observe, inspire, and then give direction.

But most of all they continue to demonstrate, in this case by freely sharing their valuable knowledge via content. The likable expert demonstrates in order to achieve leadership, but also to maintain it.

That means accepting the responsibility to earn leadership in the first place, which is the beginning of something powerful. Spiderman’s Uncle Ben (actually Voltaire) said “With great power comes great responsibility,” but the converse is also true:

With great responsibility comes great power.

Print Friendly

What do you want to learn?

Click to get a free course and resources about:

Reader Comments (38)

  1. says

    You’re making me think about the old great days of CB.

    I love to read content written by you, Brian. Specially, after hearing a lot of great info from your authority seminars and webinars.

    Please man continue writing content on this blog, even if it’ll be less than 100 words.

  2. says

    Thanks for breaking that down Brian. You made me think alot about attention but also how demonstration is the key to gaining leadership and maintaining it.

    How many bloggers talk the talk but never demonstrate that they can also walk the walk? Actively demonstrating what you write and talk about can help develop your authority. It can make you stand out.

    The other Brian wrote this a while back, “Imagine what it would be like if people started blogging about their reality, rather than what they wish their reality was.” That totally works in this situation. If I can demonstrate that my content is a reflection of my reality to my readers, I can build trust, credibility and ultimately authority in my niche!

    My mind just exploded. lol

    Thanks again,

    – Justin

  3. says

    hey Brian

    I don’t like the term thought leader either…

    I see freelance professionals like to call themselves with this slogan: “author, speaker and trainer”… hope we won’t see “thought leader” as the next trend in slogans… LOL

    Anyway, I’ve learned to attract the attention with content, and that makes me a thought leader, but I won’t call myself that to attract leads or clients… hope it makes sense?

    If any of you guys want to suggest a slogan for my expertise, check out the PDF report I offer for gratis, maybe some ideas spark into mind… appreciate all your feedback…

    • says

      What you fear has already happened, John. Just check out the number of folks on LinkedIn who are self-appointed “thought leaders” (which is a contradiction, surely, given that thought leadership — as Brian says — cannot be claimed). And my co-author, Craig Badings, and I wrote a recent article for an Australian HR magazine bemoaning the number of job titles that now have “thought leader” in them. Although when you read the job descriptions you realize this is just a “jump on the bandwagon” way of describing some pretty tactical communication or marketing positions.

  4. says

    Well said, Brian.

    I think of terms like “thought leadership” or “authority” as characterizations listeners use referring to someone whose ideas or interpretations are trusted and valuable. While our culture ‘names’ people as thought leaders, it is in the listeners’ domain to grant them authority – believe and trust what is being said. That is what makes the speaker a leader.

    Thank you for the topic!

  5. Charles Byers says


    I think you have made a great start but there is much more to thought leadership than merely attention or, for that matter, authority. Thought leadership today is really taking ownership of an issue. On one level, it is a strategy to drive brand loyalty and share of mind. On another, more tactical level, it is a strategy to drive market share. One other thing that needs to be added to the discussion is the fact that leadership, loyalty and market share are all earned over time. That said, thought leadership initiatives include a number of different tactics executed as part of an overall plan to achieve SMART (specific, measurable, aligned, realistic, time-centric) objectives.

    Charles Byers
    Professor of Practice
    Santa Clara University

    • says

      Thanks for the comment Charles, and I agree. What I was trying to do here was demystify the concept a bit. Thought leadership is often attributed to academics and established business leaders (and rightly so), but it can also be achieved by the local dentist — if he or she is guiding an audience on relevant issues.

      • says

        Demystify – that you did. Thanks.

        Now when I hear “thought-leadership” I’ll immediately start thinking attention … instead of other random and sometimes emotionally charged thoughts. :)

  6. says


    To me, Thought-Leadership isn’t a status, it’s a result of actions. So in a way I agree with you that the terms connotation is a bit of a put off…

    …but there are certainly individuals, who through their actions and accomplishments, lead thought.



  7. says

    Hi Brian,

    When I first started blogging my messaging and storyline were diluted. The writing flowed, but I didn’t have the focus I needed. I was being sucked head-first into the unforgiving blogging / social media vortex.

    The changes came when I started really paying attention to, and associating with people who do this: demonstrate their authority over and over and over again. Or as Kurtzman stated, people “who had business ideas which merited attention.”

    I consider them creative, ambitious and extremely helpful entrepreneurs who just happen to blog. They are also so good at selling because they don’t sell (well, they don’t have to) 😉

  8. says

    Hi Brian, Great article and great comments from your readers.

    You may know about Sally Hogshead and her fascination marketing strategy. There really is something to it. I have learned some excellent aspects of how people perceive what I am saying from looking at her work. If the term is overused, it could be that it is being understood from the context of Sally’s program. Neophytes can be silly at times.

    I do agree with your point. Being lauded as an expert sort distracts from Joel Kurtzman’s intent–we’re interested in the message, we don’t want to take the messenger’s role out of proportion.

    That said, I read the article because you wrote it. So I guess you are a thought–cough, cough–authority.


  9. says

    I agree with you 100%. Content does not equal thought leadership, necessarily. There are other ways to generate thought leadership (a term I hate), other than content. And, there are several other potential benefits for content beyond thought leadership.

      • says

        I think the crankiness is merited, given the rise of the self-important social media ninja guru mavens.

        I agree with what you’re saying 100%, but I hope when people take on their quest to become a thought leader, they don’t simply believe that writing prolifically across the web as free advertising for themselves equates value.

        What are your thoughts on the brands that are using employees to become “thought leaders” in lieu of advertising?

  10. says

    I too dislike the term, yet have come to embrace it because, to me, it describes someone (and in some instances can be an organization), who has advanced along a continuum from expert, through being distinctive, to a breakthrough idea, and to whom we would attribute the term thought leader, or “thinker,” or recognized authority.

    Letting go for a moment of our disdain for the term, thought leaders change the way we think. They’re influential in their fields. People quote them. Sometimes they influence public policy. People at this level of idea creation and distribution frequently start out by wanting to make a difference, to change the world in some way.

    I write about thought leadership at , where my goal is to get women included on the rosters of thought leaders…um…rosters of leading minds whose ideas make the world a better place.

    • says

      Great goal, Roberta! I noted that Joel Kurtzman included no women in his 1998 book, Thought Leaders: Insights on the Future of Business. Don’t know if Charlene Li was around then, but I’m sure Rosabeth Moss Kanter was — so that was a glaring omission for me. Will check out your website and connect with you elsewhere. Looks like we have a mission in common :-)

  11. says

    Great piece Brian. Thank you. I’ve always taken the term “thought leader” literally. If the person so identified leads my thinking to a new way of making sense of the subject matter, he or she is a thought leader. But then again, I tend to take a pellucid view of things. :)

  12. says

    Brian — I have a slightly different perspective. It’s not the concept of “thought leadership” that’s the problem, but the fact that so many folks adopt it without fully understanding that it’s not synonymous with content marketing — and certainly not content curation — nor is it interchangeable with “expert.” Expertise may be a necessary feature of thought leadership, but it’s not sufficient.

    But, really, I’m writing to bring you up to date with Joel Kurtzman’s perspective on the concept he coined some 15 or so years ago. We were quoted in a recent business magazine article in the UK in which Kurtzman commented that the term has become “utterly devalued.” Maybe because today’s supposed “thought leadership” is in such a sorry state that we see so many people responding negatively to the term? (One guy from Coutts in the same article introduces the analogy of a “must-have handbag” — it’s become the latest organizational accessory, sadly.)

    But the concept does have value, as Kurtzman goes on to explain in the BusinessLife article (and if anyone wants the pdf, just write me with your email address and I’ll send it along):

    “I like to think that when you’re using thought leadership from a business perspective, it ought to deepen the conversation between the company and the client or customer, in a way that the
    client has never thought about before. And it should cause a reaction like ‘I need to have a deeper, closer relationship to that firm because these guys are smart, they can really help me, have thought about my problem and how to solve it’.”

    So, yes, thought leadership is about attention and relevance and all the things you outline. It’s also about what one of our global case study interviewees calls “a social lubricant for engagement” — taking a unique perspective and having a strong point of view on a topic that either keeps your clients and prospects awake at night, or would do if only they were able to anticipate it.

    What, I wonder, can be wrong or unappealing about that?

    • says

      Thanks Liz. I’m not sure anything about that changes a thing that I said. We don’t have to throw the term under the bus, but we do need to humanize it.

      • says

        I guess that’s where I’m scratching my head, Brian :-) What is it about a concept that provokes people to think in value-creating, new ways, stimulates deep, two-way conversations, and solves problems that requires “humanizing”?

  13. says

    Great post, Brian.

    Kind of like having others call you an “expert” as opposed to yourself calling yourself an expert?

    The Franchise King®

      • says

        Thanks a lot for saying that, Brian.

        You are partly responsible, you know.


        You have convinced me to keep upping my game.

        Every single day.

        Thank you.


  14. says

    Find something you’re knowledgeable about and can continuously write about for years to come. Stay active with your content, like those magazines, and you’ll get there. Remember, you have to demonstrate your abilities, not claim them; after you’ve done it long enough your audience will come.

  15. Sheetal Sharma says

    Thought leadership is used as a tool for grabbing attention and also target marketing. It not only portrays you as a subject matter expert but also as a leader in market.

    Sheetal Sharma

  16. says

    I’m going to disagree Brian – thought leadership isn’t about attention.

    It’s about influence.

    Specifically, a thought leader has the ability to influence the beliefs and behaviours of others.

    There’s a big difference between an advertisement that catches my attention, and an advertisement that convinces me to commit an action.

    I’d rather have the ability to influence 10 people than the attention of 100 random persons.

    Just my 2 cents

  17. says


    This is an excellent post. In my experience, the real gold that eventually comes from the attention you’re speaking about is TRUST. This is in such limited supply that it sticks out like a lighthouse in the middle of the night.

    On one level, building trust is simple. It takes time and demonstration… “showing up” day after day.

    On another level, it’s one of the most difficult things in the world to create. That’s why it’s so rare and absolutely priceless.

  18. says

    To me, a true thought leader is someone who is leading by example and putting into practice all the things that they tweet, post and write about on a daily basis. Leading by example while taking risks in their positions is crucial.

Comments are open for seven days. This article's comments are now closed.