In times past, corporate or business leadership meant being at the front of the line, ahead of the curve, innovative, charismatic, and talented. While those descriptions may still fit, the modern executive must understand that successful leadership is more than achieving objectives or showing a profit. Regardless of the size of your company, to be a leader means that you are first a thinker. Thought leadership is, at its core, the first function of a true leader.
While it is true that success favors the bold and that action is a necessary element of progress; the ability to be successful in 21st century business is centred on a manager’s ability to be logical and to efficiently dissect and process information. These functions are vital in a world that is becoming increasingly small due to a massive free-flow of information. From a market standpoint executives must be cognizant of the fact that the window for taking advantage of opportunities is getting smaller, decisions that 20 years ago could be made in a sixty day period must now be made in sixty hours, your competition can now make market-share decisions in minutes with information that used to be near impossible to obtain. The simple fact is that the current market landscape creates traps that some managers tend to fall into; one of those major traps is making major decisions without truly processing all of the information.
Thought leadership is more than simply being intelligent; to be in position to make these decisions an executive should be perceptive; however, thought leadership refers to one’s ability to use their intelligence to quickly go through a decision making process and then assertively leading others to conform to your decisions. Without the ability to assertively lead, you are unequipped to implement your decisions, and your organization is still unable to fully benefit from your decisions.
Every organization must have thought leadership; whether it is in Research & Development, Marketing, Operations, or whether the thought leader is the CEO there needs to be people in the organization who can think outside of a vacuum. Many individuals are equipped to disseminate information and make decisions when the outcome is not vital to the company; or when another group is accountable for the decisions. To be a thought leader a person needs to be bold enough to stand up and force others to understand their perspective and manipulate the situation to make other decision makers agree with them; and most importantly, be held accountable for the success or failure of the decision. These are the people who will develop new products, will ensure that the company is at the forefront of major market shifts, and in short who will be responsible for building and sustaining innovation and success. The important question that executives must ask is; who are our thought leaders and how can we make them a more central part of the decision-making processes within our company.
How to identify Thought Leaders:
1. Seek out those managers and other key employees that are mavericks; for better or worse these individuals will make their opinions known………to everybody.
2. Seek out those who are “quick on their feet”, in that they are able to make decisions that are thoughtful and logical without having to spend considerable time researching the issue.
3. Seek out the “Smart Ones”, while its not the only ingredient, you can’t hope to be a successful organization if your leaders aren’t smart.
4. Seek out the “attention hounds”; while attention seeking can be a negative quality, you require a person who is willing to stand alone and take the blame as well as the accolades.
5. Build an environment of free ideology and encourage people to present ideas that will be heard by the executives (or presented directly). Doing this puts the employees in front of the most important people in the company, if they don’t fall apart, and they are impressive in their presentation maybe they have the guts to be a leader.
6. “YES MEN” need not apply; no matter the situation you want people who will tell you that “YOU ARE WRONG” and then quickly justify it with a logical approach and alternative ideology.
7. Confidence and Cockiness are virtues with thought managers; remember it takes a lot of self-confidence to tell a room full of people that your ideas are vital to the success of the company that they make the decisions for.
Finally, you want to seek out individuals who can inspire their believers and detractors with the same diligence; if they can’t convince people to follow then they can’t lead; and that is perhaps the most important quality to consider. The primary reason why thought leadership is so important in the 21st century is that the world of business is changing; and it’s changing fast. No longer are we afforded the opportunity to take time to make decisions, or to allow a community of executives to dissect decisions. In the current market, information is easily obtainable, competition is growing, and the world is getting smaller, without the ability to thoughtfully and efficiently process data and make decisions the competition will destroy you.
Consider the following factors that are leading to this major market shift:
• Free and Fast Information – Companies now have the ability to research competitors, vendors, and opportunities in a fraction of the time.
• Technology – We don’t have to be face to face to sell anymore; just because you are local to a client no longer provides you with a competitive advantage. Furthermore operating is now a much less expensive issue for upstart companies and without proper infrastructure maintenance you could find that your competition is now more efficient and cheaper than you.
• Technology Growth – Technology is ever-changing; we are required to invest heavily to keep up with its changes; and if we don’t we can’t hope to compete.
• Customer Demography – No longer are you confined to compete a micro-market, in the new environment companies that could only compete locally now can compete globally. Those that don’t seek to expand their reach could find themselves at a major competitive disadvantage and those that don’t respect the ever-changing competitive dynamics could cease to exist.
Consider the above a “short” list, as there are many more changes that companies must consider. To fully compete in this new landscape you must be able to see opportunities before they arrive, make decisions with imperfect information, create advantages where disadvantages once stood, be bold, be innovative, in short ………. be able to think!
Just what, exactly, is thought leadership?
In short; it’s exactly what is sounds like, thought leadership is the ability to think intelligently, make decisions quickly (actually; make the RIGHT decisions quickly), create opportunities, and most importantly convince everyone around you that you are right and inspire them to follow you.
This is not an easy proposition; a thought leader has to have characteristics that are not always prevalent or always wanted. This person has to be smart, but they also have to be confident (bordering on cocky); they have to be able to convince people that they are right, but they also have to have a track record of BEING RIGHT; they have to have a very open view of situations, but they have to be able to be narrow-minded; and most importantly they have to be driven to succeed without being afraid to fail (and take the blame for the failure). This is why it isn’t unusual to find that successful thought leaders have been tabbed at one time as “hard to work with”, “arrogant”, or “manipulative”, its not unusual for them to have failed; but its important to understand these traits are necessary for thought leaders to eventually succeed.
For the above reasons its important for insightful executives to look beyond the “Gold Star” employees (the ones everyone loves) when finding new leaders to groom, because the very traits that make for a good thought leader may not always make for a good subordinate.
How do I provide thought leadership in my company?
To inspire thought leadership, it must be engrained in the corporate culture, you must show that you welcome the free exchange of ideas from all parts of the company no matter the status of the employee. You must also show that you reward those that are bold when that boldness pays off, and you must show that those who are successful in leading new initiatives are going to quickly escalate in the company. Doing this will build an environment that encourages your “Best and Brightest” to show themselves, and that will allow you to build sustainability from the collection of talent that is already present (Even if you don’t know it yet).
Seven Ways to Engrain Thought Leadership into Corporate Culture.
1. Aligning the organization’s strategic goals with the individual goals of ambitious employees.
2. Constantly searching within the company for new talent, and understanding that its not always the best employees that make the best leaders.
3. Understanding the nature of change, the inevitability of adjustment, and the elements that cause them or at least finding other people that do.
4. Empowering the company to be proactive instead of reactive, and rewarding those proactive employees that succeed.
5. Communicating ideas and goals to all levels of the organization—from low level employees all the way up to the CEO.
6. Creating accountability structures for workers and departments, using evaluations and milestones.
Fostering an environment that encourages the sharing of ideas and in a free environment and reward those employees that instigate positive changes with more responsibilities and growth opportunities.
Doing these things will foster an environment of thought leadership and should provide you the opportunity to build an infrastructure that focuses on forward-thinking, innovation, and boldness, which are all vital factors in the success matrix of the 21st century.
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