Sunday, February 27, 2011

Karl Marx & Mckinsey: Thought Leaders?

I am no fan of jargons as unlike simple words they don’t focus on the meaning i.e. clarity of thought. But one term mainly used in B-schools, firms or you can say the business world has been intriguing me a great deal. In fact if you go deep into its meaning, you would find that its influence lies beyond the corporate world. The term that I am referring to is “Thought Leadership”.

Let me first define a “Thought Leader”. The common definition is “an entity that is recognized for having innovative ideas”. So one can display thought leadership by coming up with new ideas irrespective of his/her position or stature in the organisation. But as s/he is advocating innovative ideas that are new to the audience at large, s/he should have the required credibility and the capability to explain it with conviction. As another definition puts it, “What differentiates a thought leader from any other knowledgeable company, is the recognition from the outside world that the company deeply understands its business, the needs of its customers, and the broader marketplace in which it operates.” Thus even if coming up with new ideas is easy, gaining credibility isn’t. A thought leader should have the willingness to risk group rejection in the pursuit of a newer method. So we can say that there is a touch of rebellious attitude in a thought leader.

Leadership is about managing changes whereas management is about implementing them. So there is a general consensus that “Thought leadership ends when the target audience accepts the idea”. Thus we can say that thought leadership is about engaging with your responsibilities, connecting with your audience and packaging your ideas. A Harvard Business Review blog mentions the following as the six steps to position yourself as a thought leader. 
  • Create a Robust Online Presence
  • Flaunt High-Quality Affiliations
  • Give Public Speeches
  • Appear on TV
  • Win Some Awards
  • Publish a Book
Using these insights we can say that thought leaders should have the visibility, recognition as well as a social network to succeed in their endeavors. Some hallmarks of thought leadership are focus, novelty, relevance, validity, practicality, rigor and clarity.

Now we will consider two examples of thought leadership from different walks of life:

Karl Marx: Marxism may have influential presence in only a handful of nations nowadays but there is hardly a thinker as influential as Karl Marx in modern history. His ideas led to the establishment of governments adhering to Marxism across much of the world, and his intellectual thought has heavily influenced the academic study of the humanities and the arts. In fact some philosophers compare his impacts with the founders of two religions i.e. Jesus Christ and Muhammad. In July 2005, 27.9% of listeners in a BBC Radio 4 series “In Our Time” poll selected Marx as their favourite thinker.

Consulting firms: Thought leadership is mainly a management jargon and thus it wasn't a surprise that the term was coined in 1994, by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz, Allen & Hamilton magazine, a consulting firm. Management consulting firms have, on a continuous basis, influenced the business world by propagating their best practices and frameworks. The 7S framework of Mckinsey and the BCG matrix are some of the examples. Though such firms are losing out on prominence nowadays as they package and present the opinions of others, rather than take an opinion or lead on an issue in their own right.

Thus even though thought leadership is being used loosely nowadays with everybody claiming to be one but one can say that to make an impact organisations as well as individuals need to take it up with conviction and sincerity. 


  1. I am still trying to understand completely the above post..I think the six steps as mentioned by HBR are channels and not steps to become thought leaders. The thought leaders as listed above are examples of their own conviction than rather following a predetermined theory.

  2. @ Deepa, innovative idea is central to the idea of thought leaders. The six steps by HBR tell what you need to do after you have that "innovative idea"? These steps are meant to enhance your visibility and make your ideas presentable. It adds to one's credibility. As simply having an innovative solution won't make you a thought leader.
    Hope this helps.

  3. A nice read on thought leadership: