Thought leadership is radically different from traditional top-down leadership. It can be directed up as well as down or sideways, has nothing to do with position or managing people, is the basis of innovative change and is egalitarian because it can shift rapidly from one person to another.
Thought leadership can't be monopolized. It has nothing to do with climbing a hierarchy. It changes how people think, hence no action is necessarily implied. Implementation is a separate phase - a managerial undertaking.
Kouzes and Posner base their view of leadership on the metaphor of a journey. Their leaders sell the tickets for the journey AND help followers reach the destination. By contrast, thought leadership merely sells the tickets for the journey, leaving it to others to get to the destination on their own or with the help of managers, coaches, facilitators and catalysts.
If this sounds like leadership cut in half, think about leading by example. It also stops at selling the tickets for the journey. It demonstrates what needs to be done, leaving others to follow without helping them get there. Of course, you could help people get to the destination, but then it wouldn't be leading by example. Thought leadership can be shown by example too, as well as by advocating a better idea. In general, leadership of all kinds can be defined as: showing the way for others either by example or by promoting a better way.
What is Thought Leadership?
Whenever you advocate a new idea to your colleagues or boss, you show thought leadership. It isn't necessary to have inspirational influencing skills, which is necessary for senior executives because they need to win over the entire organization and beat off their internal competitors for top jobs. Also, to initiate organization-wide change, it helps to be inspirational. But a thought leader can focus on smaller scale changes - ideas for a new product or changes to an existing one. Thought leaders can persuade others using logic, evidence or an actual demonstration of a prototype to win support.
To be a thought leader, you need to immerse yourself in your professional domain and search for new things to say that add value to your organization's objectives. Traditional, top-down leadership depends on personal credibility or character because such leaders are asking people to join them on a difficult journey and they have a great deal of power over their followers. Hence, we need to trust them. The stronger your content, the more content becomes king, and the less powerful your influencing skills need to be.
Thought leaders could actually have weak interpersonal skills and an indifferent character. They could be loners or eccentrics. All that counts is the credibility of their new idea. This is why we can buy innovations offered by odd creative types who we would not entrust to manage any part of an organization. If you can demonstrate the value of your idea and explain it with conviction, you might not need inspirational influencing skills. Think of the stereotypical artist who has no time to socialize or even sleep and can be quite hard to get along with, but if his or her art is highly original, leadership by example will be shown despite the lack of interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.
Thought Leadership Traits
Thought leadership is based on youthful rebelliousness - the willingness to risk group rejection in the pursuit of a better way of doing things. Hence, thought leadership is not a learned skill. Only the content of your discipline or field is learned. Traditional, top-down leadership is portrayed as a collaborative effort between leaders and followers to achieve shared goals. But thought leadership has a more competitive edge. Thought leaders are saying, essentially, that they know of a better product or way of doing things than anyone else in the team or organization.
Thought leadership ends when the target audience accepts the idea. It may be that you are using hard evidence to persuade others to avoid dumping a current process for a passing fad. In this case, your leadership does not result in any action taken. This enables us to define leadership as the initiation of new directions and categorize the implementation of new ideas as a managerial activity.
This is important because we tend, traditionally, to focus on the PERSON in charge of a group as the leader who may both champion a new direction and implement it. Hence we think that leadership is about managing change. The real value of examining thought leadership is that it helps us to see that there is a critically important distinction between leadership and management. When executives move from championing a new idea to its implementation, therefore, they are switching hats from leadership to management. The bottom line is that leadership is about the initiation of new directions. Implementing them is a managerial undertaking.
Thought leadership can be shown bottom-up or sideways to colleagues. See Bottom-up Leadership for more on this idea or the related topic: Organic Leadership. The leadership traits it takes to show thought leadership are the same ones you need to show any kind of leadership as a one-off act of influence as opposed to being in charge of people. See Leadership Traits for more on this topic.
For more unconventional thinking on leadership see our sister site LEAD2XL