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Thought Leadership: Pretentious or Profitable?

image of heads drawn with lightRecently seen on Twitter: “If you ever feel the need to unironically call yourself a ‘thought leader,’ please don’t.” (Umm, I cleaned up the language for polite company.)

Is the phrase “thought leader” overused? Probably. Does it sound pretentious? Occasionally. Can it still be meaningful? Absolutely.

Two Definitions of Thought Leadership

In my reading, I find two basic definitions of thought leadership: one related to marketing and the other related to influence.

The marketing definition refers to free reports, webinars, videos and the like that organizations or individuals with specific expertise produce. You’ve seen this stuff: white papers on industry best practices, analyses of market trends, strategic insights on the latest hot topic. The idea is that sharing their perspective will benefit others, including potential clients.

The influence definition also includes expertise, but takes things further. Denise Brosseau, CEO at Thought Leadership Lab and author of Ready to Be a Thought Leader?, describes thought leadership as offering innovative ideas, turning those ideas into reality, and demonstrating how to replicate that success into sustainable change across an industry, niche, or ecosystem. As she puts it, “Thought leadership is not about being known. It is about being known for making a difference.” (Brosseau herself is known for thought leadership in increasing venture capital opportunities for female entrepreneurs. I highly recommend her book if you want to explore this definition of thought leadership.)

I tend to prefer the meaning and meaningfulness of the latter definition, but the former should not be ignored.

Impact of Thought Leadership on B2B Purchase Decisions

LinkedIn and marketing and communications firm Edelman recently collaborated on a study called How Thought Leadership Impacts B2B Demand Generation. They surveyed 1300+ U.S. business decision makers across multiple industries about the impact thought leadership has on purchase decisions. For the purpose of this study, they used the marketing definition.

Among the findings:

  • Thought leadership material influences the entire sales funnel—from awareness to consideration to preference to purchase. Decision makers use it to vet an organization and understand its caliber of thinking.
  • Decision makers most value relevance, timeliness, and that the material came from a trusted source.
  • They prefer “snackable” forms: 3- to 4-page documents, 3- to 4-minute videos.
  • Strong thought leadership increases respect and trust and influences sales. It allows companies to command a premium for their products/services.
  • However, decision makers are often disappointed with the quality of thought leadership material due to lack of valuable insights gained. If you do thought leadership poorly, you lose respect and opportunities.

Perhaps most important, the creators of thought leadership material underestimate its importance to decision makers.

Implications for Thought Leadership Books

Can we extrapolate the LinkedIn/Edelman findings to thought leadership books, including those that fit our second (“influence”) definition? Some elements, I believe, yes.

On the preferred “snackable” size: According to one analysis (Tucker Max, 2017), the average length of a NY Times bestselling nonfiction book has fallen from 467 pages to 273 pages over the past seven years. While you may not want to shrink your book down to snack size, be attentive to length; don’t overdo it.

Additionally, you can 1) develop your book in bite-size chunks, or 2) turn a finished manuscript into smaller pieces—white papers, articles, videos. Either way, deploy those digestible tidbits on multiple platforms as soon as they’re ready so you deliver value right away.

On quality and insightfulness: I wrote recently about the importance of quality as it relates to your brand promise. When shopping for clothes, there’s a place for Walmart and a place for Nordstrom; we need both. Thought leadership falls at the Nordstrom end of the spectrum: quality counts. (And you know what? It’s OK if you’re writing a book that is not a thought leadership book.)

On the importance of relevance and timeliness: If you have perspective germane to the current environment, write your book now.

Finally, don’t underestimate the role your thought leadership materials—including books—can play in developing business.


Are you seen as an expert or, dare we say, a thought leader in your field? Is the content for a book in your head but you don’t know how to get it on paper? Give me a call—I love to help people give form to their thoughts.


Additional Reading

NOTE: After I shared this article, friend and colleague Robert Ferguson of Ferguson Values took the discussion further. He linked thought leadership to differentiating values.

“It is differentiating values that help … leaders build values-based organizations. This includes building a strong, impactful, and lasting brand. … We live in a world where business strategy has shifted from being product-focused to customer-focused and now to values-focused.”

I got goosebumps when I read:

It is time for leaders of organizations to stand up and clearly state what they want to be known for and the difference they want to make.

Yes. Yes. Yes.


Don’t miss Robert’s full article, Why Now Is The Time To Differentiate Through Thought Leadership.

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