On being … thought leadership?

By Ingrid Sapona

Last week I was at dinner at my friend’s (I’ll call her Leanne – yes, the same friend I mentioned a few columns back). We talked about some of the challenges we’ve been encountering in our work. We’re both self-employed plain language writers/consultants. Leanne used a couple phrases – courage being one of them – that don’t often come up in business conversations. Though I didn’t interrupt when she first use the word, I immediately thought about researcher/author/speaker Brené Brown’s work.

As the conversation continued, Leanne mentioned that she’s been inspired by something she’s been reading. At that point, I asked if it was by Brené Brown. She was surprised. I explained that her reference to the notion of courage made me think of Brown. Indeed, Leanne was referring to something by Brown.

Though I’ve not read any of Brown’s work, I have seen her TED talk and I’ve seen a few other videos of her. Brown, a professor, has written a lot about vulnerability, courage, shame, and authenticity. I was quite interested in Leanne’s comments and insights on Brown’s work. Leanne has an analytical mind and I find that she’s very good at digesting information and then figuring out how it may apply in her life and work. 

After a lengthy, interesting discussion about some of Brown’s concepts, Leanne sort of sheepishly added, “a lot of it’s really just common sense”. I think she’s right. But, as I said to Leanne, there’s nothing wrong with common sense and I sure think the world could do with more of it!

One of my clients this week asked me to ghost write an article. We met to discuss the article. They want to pitch the article to the editor of an industry magazine. Their corporate social responsibility group has been working with another industry organization to create public educational information on a topic that’s relevant to their industry. The approach they’ve taken to providing the information is creative and they think it’ll be a way to connect with a segment of the public that their industry hasn’t had success engaging. 

We agreed the article can’t be just about the education campaign or the company’s involvement in creating it. The concern is that could be seen as too self-serving and therefore the editor would be likely to reject the article. They mentioned they want the article to be a “thought leadership piece”.

My initial task was to come up with an outline we could submit to the editor. First I wanted to understand the nature of the underlying information and its relevance to their industry. As they explained, the basic information has been available in traditional formats for a long time. The innovative part, as far as I could tell, is the new way they’re providing the information. So, I put together the article outline.

The first half of the article would feature a discussion of the need for education on this topic. It would also note how much the industry has already done to educate the public. Then we’d explain that the client has worked with another industry organization on this new, creative approach to educating the public. And finally, the article would talk about some of the specific benefits of this new approach. Also, I included a suggested title that highlighted the new creative approach to the public education effort.

The client’s response to my outline was not what I hoped. They said we needed to adjust the focus because the article can’t be mainly about their new approach. They reiterated the concern that saying too much about the new approach might be deemed too self-promoting. Instead, they felt it should mainly be about the need to engage the public on the topic and about the industry’s general interest in educating the public. 

I pointed out that from the editor’s point-of-view, what’s newsworthy is the new approach. They again said they’re looking for an article that will “demonstrate thought leadership”. After admitting I’m not 100% sure what that phrase means to them, I argued that the fact that the underlying topic is relevant to the industry is well known and that to focus on that doesn’t demonstrate leadership – or even particularly new thought. After going around in circles on the question of what thought leadership entails, I gave up and simply promised a revised outline. I’ve sent it off and hopefully they’ll like it better, though I don’t think it’ll be as interesting an article.

I don’t know the origins of the idea of “thought leadership”, but I’ve worked on enough thought leadership articles to know it’s all the rage. As a plain language person, I’m always put off by such corporate speak. Compounding my ire is the fact that there’s often little new or particularly original ideas in such pieces. It’s usually just a grandiose label business people use when they simply want to provide information in their particular field.

So how do these two stories relate? Well, I couldn’t help thinking about the discussion Leanne and I had about Brené Brown’s work and whether it might be an example of thought leadership. Though Leanne and I concluded our discussion about Brown’s ideas by agreeing there’s a common sense core, Brown’s analysis definitely provided a different way of looking at – and thinking about – some fundamental human behaviour.

So yes, maybe there is something to thought leadership… But please, just as not every person is a leader, let’s be honest: not every business article deserves the thought leadership label.

© 2016 Ingrid Sapona


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