A popular article defined a thought leader as an individual who is "one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization" and who "significantly profits from being recognized as such." These individuals, recognized and rewarded for their technical expertise, are asked to make pronouncements about the current and future state of their line of work.
But this definition of thought leadership doesn't keep up with the latest research and scholarship on leadership, which suggests that leaders require much more than technical expertise for effective leadership. Research shows there are three essential qualities, beyond technical expertise, that define good leadership--mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and strategic thinking. If what we consider "good" leadership has changed, then why hasn't our conception of "good" thought leadership changed too? It's time for a more nuanced conceptualization.
Thought leaders should not just be individuals who produce valid scientific ideas and observations rooted in their expert knowledge. They ought to be individuals who read complex business situations well and can bring out the best in other people. In other words, a thought leader should lead others to think--and thereby to innovate, self-motivate, and reach their highest potential. Inspiring other people in this way requires personal traits and skills that far exceed expert knowledge.
My reading of seminal work, combined with my experience as an executive coach, have convinced me that thought leadership can be enhanced by supplementing technical expertise with the same three essential qualities that define good leadership: mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and strategic thinking. These concepts intertwine, mutually reinforce one another, and strengthen the technical knowledge that leaders must deploy. If thought leadership is redefined as such, different kinds of leaders--those with essential traits beyond technical expertise--will be empowered to opine and shape the future of their fields. They will also reap the financial rewards that their perspective and skills warrant.
Mindfulness is a sine qua none and a core characteristic of the thought leader. Leaders with self-awareness and stress management skills are best positioned to think clearly, prioritize, collaborate, and make sound decisions. Empirical research shows that mindfulness strategies such as meditation enhance executive leadership skills. The calm, mindful leader is well positioned to inspire others to achieve the same state of mind, in which they can perform at their best. We should seek the opinions of leaders who function in this way and recognize them as thought leaders. Recent articles on CEOs of major corporations who espouse mindfulness in the workplace, such as Mark Bertolini of Aetna, demonstrate a burgeoning movement in this direction.
When people manage stress effectively and possess a high degree of self-awareness, they are more likely to have the bandwidth to pay attention to the needs of others. Thought leaders should be well-attuned to the thoughts, feelings, needs, expectations, and priorities of everyone in their social environment--including colleagues, clients, shareholders, customers, members of the media, and others. We ought to regard thought leaders as those who have the social and emotional intelligence to understand the complex environments in which they're embedded. A thought leader of this ilk is Jack Bogle, the retired CEO of Vanguard, who has stated that reading poetry to enhance his self-understanding and empathy skills was the major driving force in his creation of the world's largest mutual fund.
Leaders like Bogle, with high levels of self-awareness and social skill, engage in more-effective strategic thinking than their counterparts whose main distinguishing characteristic is technical knowledge. Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, is a prime example of a strategic thought leader of this kind. His book, The Start-Up of You, highlights the necessity of nurturing relationships and social networks, asking good questions of others, and synthesizing that information into "actionable intelligence." Thought leaders must collaborate well and lead others to have innovative thoughts of their own in order to implement strong action plans. The thought leader of the 21st century should be equally a mentor, adviser, catalyst, and coach to others around him or her. Simon Sinek's work--including his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action--delineates how thought leaders ask visionary questions and promote dialogue around core values, in addition to having the requisite technical skills to perform their roles.
There are practical consequences of redefining thought leadership in these terms. When we transition to this more holistic understanding of thought leadership, Wall Street analysts will seek out not just technical experts but also leaders embedded on collaborative teams and in social milieus where their products and services are most relevant. The press will increasingly look to profile thought leaders like Bertolini and Bogle, thereby promoting the value of self-management, empathy, and humanism in the business world. Business and professional schools will include prominently in their curricula not only technical knowledge, but also robust information and guidance on mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and strategic thinking. New leadership development and employee training programs will do the same.
When we include all of these traits in the definition of thought leadership, capable individuals will notice and take action. They will step up to more impactful leadership roles by supplementing their technical knowledge with self-awareness, empathy, collaboration, and visionary thinking. Promotions to managerial and corporate leadership roles will include comprehensive assessment and training on both the technical and the humanistic aspects of effective leadership. The more inclusive definition of thought leadership will recognize and reward individuals who embody the cognitive, emotional, and social skills needed for success in our increasingly complex business world.