He called it the “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System.” And during the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, Douglas Engelbart introduced his prototype to the world. Using a totally primitive 192 kilobyte mainframe computer located 25 miles away, Engelbart astounded attendees with how he was able to control everything on the screen with the touch of, well, a mouse – the name the device eventually would embrace.
The interactive, user- friendly information access systems that Engelbart unveiled during the conference would forever change the computing world. The mouse. Windows. Shared- screen teleconferencing. Hypermedia. GroupWare. While seemingly light years ahead of his time, Engelbart was a thought leader before thought leader was the term we affixed to people who incite change.
Joel Kurtzman, now with the Milken Institute, coined that term and the definition for a thought leader in 1994 as a theme for a series of interviews he conducted as editor-in-chief of Strategy + Business magazine. Kurtzman defined this person as someone who had ideas “that merited attention.”
“Thought leaders have a critical advantage, because if they’re guiding the discussion in their industry, people are obviously drawn to them,” says strategy consultant and author Dorie Clark. “But you also have to have a solid strategy to monetize and harness the potential for growth. To bring it to the level of an individual, you can be the smartest tech blogger in the world, with a huge readership, but unless you can figure out how to translate that into income (advertising on your site, speeches at conferences, a book deal, etc.), you’ll stay poor. The same goes for companies that are thought leaders in their industries. Apple is the extremely obvious one, for elevating their ethos of design excellence.”
Perhaps few individuals lived this out more than Steve Jobs, who became a living, breathing example of what is was like to be a thought leader in everything he did. It was no secret: Steve Jobs wanted to change the world. That he did it on such a grand scale is what history will continue to record. Channeling the words of Wayne Gretsky, Jobs once likened his vision for Apple to the hockey legend’s vision on the ice: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
Evidence of Jobs’ thought leadership is apparent in the many products he helped pioneer, from the Mac, to the iPod and iTunes. Revolutionary and standard set- ting – that is where his thought leadership mojo pushed him to be. Jobs understood long before we did how important “devices” would be to our future. Staying two steps ahead of the curve transformed Apple into a market leader, eventually setting the foundation for brands such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the list goes on. As the CEO of Clark Strategic Communications, Dorie Clark has helped companies such as Google, the Ford Foundation, Yale University and the National Park Services enhance their reputations as industry leaders. The former presidential campaign spokesperson understands the lines between what makes a market leader and thought leader. “A market leader is the ‘big fish’ in an industry, leading in sales or overall size. I’d define a thought leader as a person or company that is setting the tenor of debate: What’s important? What’s innovative? Where’s the edge? That’s what the thought leader contributes.”
Clark says that, while market leaders may also be thought leaders, it is not always the case. “As the theory of disruptive innovation suggests, it’s easy for big, established companies to get languid and complacent, and that gets them supplanted. Real thought leaders create high-quality, useful content on a regular basis. Whether it’s blogs, podcasts or a great, curated Twitter feed, they pinpoint key issues and developments in their field and help others see the future.”
Taking the bull by the horns
Branded as a thought leader in your industry is a major step toward increased credibility for your business and its products/services. It also can help you stand out from your competitors. Are you more likely to trust and purchase from a company whose leaders are recognized as industry experts or from one whose leaders you know nothing about?
Lori Rosen believes the strongest attribute your company or brand can have is being considered a market leader or thought leader, preferably both. Rosen, founder and president of The Rosen Group, a Manhattan-based public relations firm, also is the managing partner of Swiss eTailer Blacksocks U.S., and executive director of the Custom Content Council.
“In today’s competitive landscape, you need to be a market leader and a thought leader,” Rosen says. “Some of the most successful brands today – Google, Apple, Nike, Wal-mart, Microsoft, Facebook, Coca Cola, McDonald’s – are all market leaders, and in varying degrees, and for better or worse, thought leaders. I believe that thought leaders and market leaders are becoming more and more one in the same.”
Rosen believes that, to be successful and to create long-term capital and value for your company, you must be both. “Thought leader companies have gravitas; they are viewed as more substantial; they are perceived as bringing more than just a product; but ideas, substance and several layers. They are more human and, as a result, they are able to bring an emotional element to the company, which has intangible benefits.”
Content is a game changer for thought leadership positioning of a company or organization. Brands now are able to communicate directly to their customers.Lori Rosen, Executive Director, Custom Content Council