I’ve never met Steve Blank but his ideas, outlined in his book ‘The Four Steps to the Epiphany’ launched the Lean Startup movement. In my mind, that classifies him not only as an innovative thinker but also a thought leader. The commencement speech he delivered at ESADE to the class of 2014 about the future of entrepreneurship, particularly the section on innovation, had some parallels to the different types of thought leaders in the market but it was also a stark reminder that innovation and thought leadership are not synonymous.
For Blank, at its most basic, innovation means introducing something new. At Leading Thought we have always maintained that thought leadership is about presenting an idea that is novel – one that will shift an audiences’ frame of reference or paradigm so they begin to see things differently.
If we’re on the same page in that regard, then what’s the difference that makes the difference?
Blank’s four types of business innovation
In his speech, Blank identifies four types of organizational innovation and this is where thought leadership and innovation start veering apart.
- Individual initiative: Where a company creates a culture in which anyone can start an idea or a project e.g. Google allowing employees 20% of their time to work on their own projects.
- Process improvement: For example, car companies that introduce new models or phone companies that introduce new phones. In other words, the extension of existing products/services.
- Continuous innovation: This builds on a company’s strengths but creates new elements e.g. Coke adding snack food, Amazon producing Kindle or Virgin adding Virgin Money.
- Disruptive innovation: The creation of new industries that oftentimes destroy old ones. These are normally startups offering products or services that did not exist before e.g. fax, mobile phone, internet, human genome sequencing, etc.
Leading Thought’s three types of thought leaders
At Leading Thought we define thought leadership as ‘…an earned authority arising from a pioneering mindset, the courage to influence and a clear, compelling client-centric mindset.’
For us it is all about presenting ideas, processes, methodologies, arguments and research that provoke the change in mind or approach that helps your audience can move forward and solve issue or challenge. By doing this you, your company and your ideas are recognized as having shaped and led the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others.
Use this as a filter to Blank’s categories of process improvement and continuous innovation and it’s evident that it would be really difficult to have a thought leader emerge from these. This also applies to some extent to the first, individual initiative but definitely not the last – disruptive innovators. It is typically these innovators who are tagged early by their market as thought leaders because they truly shift market perceptions and people’s paradigms.
Experts versus thought leaders
There is also a distinction between an expert and a thought leader. For example:
- There are many aviation experts but it’s the likes of Richard Branson who is recognized as a thought leader in aviation and space travel.
- There are countless experts on economics but Thomas Picketty is recognized as a thought leader on modern capitalism.
- There are many experts on vehicle transport but Elon Musk is recognized as a thought leader on the electric car.
- There are many experts on advertising but David Ogilvy is still recognized today as a thought leader on advertising.
Can experts become thought leaders? Absolutely…most would have heard of the 10,000 hour principle first researched by K. Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. My experience is that the more expert you are on a topic, the more you are able to explore and add new thinking to that topic. But this is where the distinction between innovation, expertise and thought leadership comes in. Because it’s a rare breed of true innovators who truly influence an audience to do things differently, in the process of which they are elevated from expert to thought leader in the eyes of others.
Always remember that thought leadership is bestowed on you by an audience; no amount of self-labeling will earn you the title.
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