Posted by Tom Grant on December 21, 2010
Since there's no systematized, look-it-up-in-your-economics-textbook definition of thought leadership, people generally lapse into metaphor when they try to describe the concept. The language usually gets very Joseph Campbell-ish. Thought leaders might be visionaries, Delphic conduits into some shared future. Or, they might be heroic trailblazers, clearing a path into places that no one knew existed, or they were afraid to venture.
Our recent research into thought leadership points to a different metaphor. Thought leaders are not seers, like Cassandra or the Sibyl. They're closer to trailblazers or founders, like Romulus or (less mythologically) Alexander the Great. But even that's not exactly right, since thought leadership depends critically on communication. Alexander got a lot of good press; Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, got much less (at least in the West). As a result, people are still sifting through Alexander's career for nuggets about successful leadership. Cyrus the Great? Not so much.
Thought leaders are, to a big extent, more like Homer than the people whom Homer chronicled. They're good story-tellers, which demands far more than relating a collection of incidents.
Just ask anyone reading a success story on a tech vendor's web site.
Story-telling is a real art, even when the facts are in little or no dispute. The facts matter, but so does the way in which someone tells them. Historians, for example, do more than just rattle off a sequential list of events. The best historians have a point they're trying to make, through a tale of triumph or tragedy that resonates with the audience. The opposite of this is what historian Hew Strachan called "narrative history at its worst," a collection of factual statements that have no relevance or application.
Most success stories, which are the foundation stones of any vendor's claim to thought leadership, do have a point. Unfortunately, it's a very narrow one, and the protagonist isn't the person whom the audience wants to hear about. Too many success stories tell the story of (1) the vendor, and (2) why someone has enjoyed basking in their reflected glory. Take, for example, this tale about Allegheny Energy, one of SAP's reference customers. Actually, the case study is not really about Allegheny. If you want to know who the real protagonist is, look no further than the heading in the upper right, Why SAP Was Selected. (See how the passive voice pushes the customer completely out of that sentence?)
That's fine if the only question you have is, "Should I select SAP?" Unfortunately, customers want a bit more. Thought leaders, as we learned, play a critical role in the first stage of a project, when people are trying to figure out new ways to tackle problems, including approaches that they might not have considered feasible. That maxim is just as true of disruptive technologies, where the challenge is getting people to be early adopters, and well-established technologies, where the goal is to find some way to distinguish themselves from other alternatives.
Case in point: this Microsoft Project success story about Volvo. Few categories of software are as well-established as project management. To be honest, few are as likely to make potential users run screaming from the room. Whoever wrote this case study did exactly the right thing: focus on the interesting story about the customer's project, and get to the splendiferousness of Microsoft Project later.
Instead of talking about Gantt charts and dependencies, this success story zooms into a real grabber of a topic: meetings that go on too long, with nothing to show for the time spent. The story positions Microsoft as Robin to Volvo's Batman – a significant character, but not the real driver of the story. We want to hear the narrative of how Volvo saves money on contractors (POW!) and moves people nimbly between projects (BAM!), instead of some throw-away quote from a CIO about how important Microsoft Project is to their business.
One of the punchlines of our research into the life of product managers and marketers is, vendors sell products and services, but customers buy relationships with companies. An ongoing conversation about matters of mutual interest (business problems, and the role technology plays in addressing them) keeps that relationship alive. Thought leaders know that, as in any relationship, talking about yourself constantly is the wrong way to keep the other party interested. Except in the most emotionally intimate situations, which vendor/customer relations are not, the most significant story depicts someone like you, dealing with the daily challenges you face, and succeeding or failing in the process.