XTC 5/22: Reversing the Bastardization of Leadership in Tech PR, Part 2

Credit: Todd Quackenbush
Credit: Todd Quackenbush
Credit: Todd Quackenbush

This week, we continue to examine the impact of abusing the term “leader” by looking at the overuse of “thought leadership.” This will include some thoughts on how to avoid the perils of hyperbole around what is actually an extremely beneficial exercise in market education.

First, let’s start with why people engage in thought leadership in the first place. Tech companies often need to make the leap from being seen as a “vendor” or “provider” to being seen as a trusted advisor. One way to do this is to be the voice of reason around emerging technologies and help people distinguish hype from reality. In this regard, creative use of things like the Gartner Hype Cycle (something B&O has pioneered and a topic of discussion in our next XTC series on Hype and Hyperbole) can be extremely helpful. Another way to do this is to help people zero in on smart questions they can ask themselves as they go through the inevitable learning curve of putting new technology to good use.

Thought leadership backfires, however, when it’s reduced to jumping on the latest buzzword bandwagon and substituting a product pitch for meaningful discussion. This is where objective definitions of thought leadership can be helpful, and at B&O, we think of thought leadership this way:

Communications that motivate people to think about a current topic in a new way and
result in a measurable change in beliefs and behavior.

In other words, thought leadership is not a product pitch, though it may boost sales. It isn’t always tech-centric, though innovation and ingenuity are often components. It doesn’t jump on the latest cycle of hype, though it pokes holes in common myths. It isn’t always focused on personalities and executive images, though it can boost executive visibility. Most importantly, it leads with smart questions as much as smart assertions, as questions are more effective in shifting people’s perspectives.

So in service of bringing meaning back to the term “thought leadership”, we offer the following set of criteria to help save your own efforts from the buzzword graveyard:

  • Be relevant. Address a technology or topic that’s already top of mind, rather than trying to popularize a new term or category definition that’s blatantly self-serving and not immediately recognizable.
  • Be useful. Deepen people’s understanding of that technology or topic, not just your own specific offering.
  • Be provocative. Change the way people consider their challenges and opportunities by challenging unhelpful assumptions that inhibit the creative use of the technology. But don’t just poke holes in other people’s ideas or prop up your own. Create a new perspective that shifts people’s thinking.
  • Be inclusive. Rather than dominating the discussion as the lone voice, invite constructive dialogue from the industry. And the most effective way to do this is to pose open-ended “viral questions” that trigger dialogue.

Next week: technology leadership and what it means to be a tech leader, not just a tech peddler.