Thought Leadership at the Deep End of the Pool

For business thinkers, it’s never been so easy to publish… and never been so hard to write what people are truly looking to read.

By Art Kleiner

Photo by Elizabeth Kleiner

want to write a book,” said Alicia, “to build up my brand name.” A leadership development expert in her mid-40s, she’s one of those uncannily gifted facilitators who can walk into a room of squabbling top executives and, with just a few well-placed questions, shift the atmosphere from overwrought to kumbaya. But first she has to be invited in.

Since she’s a freelancer competing against the likes of McKinsey and Bain, she’s constantly worried about her ability to get noticed. Conventional wisdom increasingly says that if you want to get your foot in the door, you have to produce thought leadership. You have to show, in other words, that you are worthy of being recognized for your insight, and that you have the conceptual key to unlock other peoples’ problems, inside your enterprise and ideally in the world at large.

The term “thought leadership” may seem like a recently coined marketing phrase. But it dates back at least to 1876, when the influential Unitarian theologian Charles Henry Appleton Dall described Ralph Waldo Emerson as manifesting “the wizard-power of a thought leader.” In 1995, Joel Kurtzman, the founding editor-in-chief of the management magazine strategy+business, revived the phrase for a series of “thought leader interviews” with management luminaries. At the time, there were only a few such luminaries around: Clayton Christensen had only just published The Innovator’s Dilemma; C.K. Prahalad and Stuart Hart were still researching the theory that would eventually become The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

It’s 25 years later, and the magazine (which, incidentally, I was editor-in-chief of from 2005 through 2019) is still using the name for its interview series. Kurtzman was on to something. Every business decision — indeed, just about every major decision people make — is a bet on some theory about the way the world works. Most of these theories are chosen unconsciously, and many of them have unrecognized, unintended consequences. The practice of thought leadership, when it’s authentic, energetic, and skillful, is thus a solution to one of the basic problems of our time. Humanity has more technological and managerial power than ever before. But we don’t know how to use it wisely.

Humanity has more technological and managerial power than ever before. But we don’t know how to use it wisely.

Thought leaders are people who create clear, influential narratives that make sense of human endeavor and the world around us. Great thought leadership has four qualities: timely originality (the writer sees what needs to be seen now, that others have mostly missed), conceptual clarity (the writer makes sense of a complex situation), explanatory power (the reader learns not just what’s going on, but why) and a natural constituency (people are ready to hear what the writer has to say).

Like Alicia, we have all seen other business thought leaders rise to prominence and reward. We think we know at least as much as they do, and we’re probably right. So it’s natural to wonder: Why can’t we do the same?

We can. But not if we’re too glib. Many of us who call ourselves thought leaders are still paddling at the shallow end of the pool. There is a great deal of well-intentioned work out there that starts to express a theory about the way the world works — but stops before it’s fully developed. The thinking and logic may fill out a bullet-point list, but it doesn’t really connect. It’s more superficial, and therefore less powerful, than we need it to be right now.

If we really want to produce work that makes a difference, we’re going to have to dive into deeper waters. Even narrow topics — like why one software package is better than another, or what to do about a particular regulation — have broader, more substantial implications. Great thought leadership, if we can find it, exposes those hidden connections and brings them to the surface, where they illuminate the theories by which, consciously or not, we place the bets that lead to breakthrough endeavors.

Admiring the Problem

In business writing, it’s always tempting to start by dwelling on the challenges — in other words, to “admire the problem.” In that spirit, the world of business publishing is facing a burning platform of sorts. It is easier to publish than it ever has been in human history — and harder than ever to break through on a large enough scale to make a difference.

Steve Piersanti, the founder and senior editor of Berrett-Koehler (one of the great business book publishers) points out that the number of books sold each year in the United States has been basically level since about 2007. But the number of books published each year is ten times what it was back then. Those in the game of writing and editing know that something similar is going on everywhere with reports, articles, blogs, oral histories, predictions, videos, podcasts, and any other means of communicating knowledge — including music, acting, and the performing arts. (As it happens, 2007 is the year that Netflix introduced its video streaming.)

Much of the new material being published is credible. Every year, there are fewer truly awful pieces of work. According to Edward Haigh — joint managing director of the firm Source Global Research, which rates and reviews thought leadership by major consulting firms — the proportion of very poorly ranked entries continues to fall. But most of it, that I’ve seen at least, stays at the shallow end of the pool. It’s harder than ever to find truly great, insightful, compelling, practical information. And it’s especially hard to find insight that can make a difference for real organizations doing real work.

Even Christensen or Prahalad would have a harder time getting attention if they were first publishing today. I think they would have broken through because their ideas about the costs of ignoring disruption (Christensen) and the opportunities in subsistence economies (Prahalad) were just too strong. (A compelling article appeared recently here on Medium by James Allworth explaining why Intel lost its way when it stopped paying attention to Christensen.) But what about the new Christensens and Prahalads emerging today? Are they getting the notice they deserve?

And what about the thought leadership consumer’s perspective — the perspective that should really matter most? More information is available than ever before. And yet we can’t easily find the knowledge we need. That’s what happens when most thought leaders are working at the shallow end of the pool, and the incentives (such as a shortage of effective aggregators) compel writers and thinkers to stay there.

Consider just a few issues that are on peoples’ minds right now. Suppose you work for a tech company and you want to know how to develop wise artificial intelligence, without tipping over into dangerous surveillance or insidious bias-driven dystopia, but without losing the value of machine learning. Or what if you are genuinely interested in helping a large established company in, say, energy or construction, disrupt its way toward a zero-carbon footprint while still maintaining the lifestyle and comfort level of its leadership ? Or imagine figuring out a truly workable solution to the problem of regulation, where restrictions and adversarial relationships inhibit the innovation that companies need, but cooperation leads to corruption and collusion? There are people with cogent ideas, but they tend to be either inaccessible (written for specialists or academics) or underdeveloped and overignored.

To paraphrase James Hillman and Michael Ventura, we’ve had more than 100 years of thought leadership, and the world’s getting worse. Search engines and social media were supposed to take the place of human curation, and crowd-source us to the best material. But instead, we’ve drifted into an online environment cluttered with half-baked bullet points, and almost no incentive to take our ideas to the finish line.

We’ve had more than 100 years of thought leadership, and the world’s getting worse.

So how do you put forth the material that others are truly looking for, that represent the most useful and valuable insights you have, in ways that really make a difference? Bullet points won’t cut it. Search engine optimization won’t get you there. What we really need is human awareness optimization, and we’re still figuring out how to achieve this.

Human Awareness Optimization

Thought leadership at the deep end of the pool is like doing anything of value. To get it right, you need brains, craft, and persistence. And as with any form of entrepreneurship, you also need courage. If your insights are good, they’ll probably contradict what has been said before — because that hasn’t worked.

My views on the craft of thought leadership come from years of helping people articulate their ideas, first at the Whole Earth Catalog and Review with Stewart Brand, then at the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook series with Peter Senge, and then at strategy+business, with a lot of freelancing in between. I’ve ghostwritten for men, women, and most varieties of LGBTQ, for people of every conceivable ethnic background, for committed people of faith and adamantly secular people, for highly respectable and covertly disreputable people, and for people of every age and political perspective. And I’ve come to believe that most of us have something to say. It would make life a lot better if we could unearth and articulate it more effectively.

The craft of thought leadership involves 7 different skills, in my view. Getting good at all 7 can involve a lifetime’s practice. (This is not a casually generated list; my colleague George Roth and I started with two, back in the late 1990s when we were designing a format for organizational research called “learning histories” at MIT’s Sloan School. Gradually, over the years, the repertoire has evolved.) To be a thought leader, you develop all of these frames of mind, more or less concurrently, shifting among them, until you’re reasonably proficient at all of them. There’s no particular order, but it’s like learning yoga or weight-lifting. Some of these will feel incredibly natural, and others will feel very strange — like you’re stretching a mental muscle you didn’t know you had.

The seven orientations, in rough order from outside-facing-in to inside-facing-out, are as follows:

1. Audience: With whom will you connect?

To answer this question, you need to think like a marketer. Consider the people ready to hear your message. How can you move just far enough beyond their expectations to pique their interest, without turning them away? You are part of one or more communities of people, often worldwide, who have reason to care about what you suggest. To fulfill that reason, you need to understand who they are — but not be limited by what they want.

2. Outreach: Where does your work appear?

During the last five years or so, the rules of the game for publications and online channels have changed. It is almost impossible to sell books, when people can simply read a summary of them on Amazon. Edited publications have overwhelmed curators and fickle audiences. Publishing on your own, through channels like Medium and Substack, places your trust in social media and search engines. The more adept and artful you are at tagging and positioning yourself — for example, developing a reliable, consistent schedule and channel presence — the more likely you are to succeed.

3. Format: How do you package your material?

As Steve Jobs figured out for Apple, the packaging defines the first impression people have of you. Your work is introduced by its format: the text, sound, and image conventions that provide its look and feel. Even if you delegate the task of formatting, you need to be aware of the choices made on your behalf. Many formats — the headline in a news story, the half-hour length of a television program, and the ways in which pull-quotes are set apart on Medium (for example) — are widely shared, and useful for just that reason. You don’t have to reinvent them each time you use them. It’s exhausting to abandon them. The community gradually, incrementally refines them, and they continually get better. The trick is to use the right ones at the right times, and abandon them when it helps you stand out.

4. Story: What experience can you create?

Every piece of creative work, including thought leadership, is like a sculpture in which the raw material is the audience’s attention. In the story-teller’s frame of mind, you set up each step to build on what came before, always looking for the emotional pull that draws people into the next passage. Even with the most prosaic topic, you find a way to tap into the lyrical depths of mind and heart, to bring the narrative to life, to resonate with the blood.

5. Research: How do you substantiate your ideas?

Your concept is inevitably grounded in some kind of “seed corn” — some kernel of real-world evidence or practice. What further research — observation, interviews, data analysis, or secondary-source reading — do you need to conduct to verify what you say? How can you assure us that your research is universally applicable, relatively consistent, and reliable enough to trust and follow?

6. Logic: Why do your concepts matter?

At the deep end of the pool, you draw out the ramifications of your insight. What do you see that others don’t see? Does your insight have explanatory power? Can you articulate it in terms of cause and effect? If one thing happens, what other things might follow as a result? How can you develop those implications without falling too deeply in love with your own biases and thought processes? This ability to recognize and articulate patterns represents the difference between a subject matter expert and a genuine thought leader.

7. Purpose: What do you care about?

People go to all this trouble for a variety of reasons: to build a business, build a brand, bring people together, provide a service, or educate others. These are powerful motives, but to have a true impact, something more is required: a commitment to the pure intrinsic value of your ideas. Why do you want to say this? Because you want to say this.

It’s much like the reason you start a business. Yes, you want to make money, but you choose something you’re good at, something you can imagine doing because you think you can make something truly cool happen. You want to take this baby, this insight, this concept, out on the highway and see how it handles. And if you don’t have any intrinsic interest in what you have to say, it’s unlikely to make a difference.

Becoming a Thought Leader

“People who shape the world with their ideas are magnetic,” says Bill Isaacs, author of Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. “It’s not just their language; it’s their energy that moves people.”

In thought leadership, you gain that magnetic energy when you cycle among these seven orientations. With practice, you become more alive, more authentic, more real. You change your focus, away from merely being rich and famous (you hope) to being a discoverer, an articulator, a person who sees.

Each one of these seven orientations feels different; each represents a different kind of puzzle to solve. If you’re not used to them, they can feel very unfamiliar at first. It’s especially difficult to think about more than one of these at a time. You can’t figure out the logic of your message while you’re wondering whether your audience will accept it, otherwise, you censor yourself. (“Cancel culture” is caused, in my view, by trying to short-circuit these orientations too rapidly. So is writer’s block.) You have to bring the story to its fevered pitch and then read it in your audience’s mind. And then reconsider your purpose, and then your outreach.

It’s fun to think sequentially this way. It’s a bit like learning to ski. Each aspect of the sport engages your mind and body differently. And while you can get a lot of coaching and help, in the end it’s just you on your own skis, navigating your way downhill.

Great thought leadership is a building block of civilization. We need to raise the game so that the quality of our insights match the level of our capabilities. Or as Stewart Brand put it on the back of the original Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods, and we might as well get good at it.” We won’t get good at it without better thought leadership.

Since humanity already has so much power over the human condition, it is imperative on us to learn to use that power more effectively. We should not want to truly be as gods, and our efforts to date should be reason for a great deal of humility — but, at the same time, we should continually be trying to do better, and continually trying to better understand what “better” could be.

Thoughtful business writer & editor. Wise Advocate, Age of Heretics, Who Really Matters, 5th Discipline Fieldbook, strategy+business, Whole Earth Catalog.

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