Looking at the bigger picture

Thought leadership is more than a buzzword: here’s how companies give shape to it.


A rapidly growing number of companies claim to be thought leaders. Over the past six months, thought leadership sections have mushroomed on corporate websites. These sections focus on the knowledge and expertise of the organisation. However, these two factors alone do not turn a company into a thought leader and are only pieces (albeit important) of the puzzle.

Thought leader companies are capable of breaking through conventional thought patterns in the market and thereby offering refreshing insights to customers and other relevant stakeholders. Thought leaders are recognised leaders within their own sectors thanks to their novel point of view on issues that really matter to customers. One case in point is IBM, widely considered a thought leader. Through its ‘system perspective’, IBM allows its customers to take a fresh look at the issues they are grappling with (such as energy efficiency, water management, traffic congestion).

For example, IBM rejects the traditional way of viewing traffic problems in cities. It argues that society must stop focusing exclusively on smaller parts of the bigger problems: building a new bridge, broadening a road, putting up traffic signs, assigning rush-hour lanes. Instead, we need to concentrate on the relationships within the whole system and all related systems: the supply chains, the environment, the private sector: how people live and work. IBM gives shape to its perspective by offering effective solutions to customers that help them to improve their businesses or lives. As such, IBM is able to position itself as a reliable thought leader and expert that understands the world of its customers.

Mignon van Halderen

Dr Mignon van Halderen is an associate professor at Fontys School of Communication, University of Applied Sciences in  Eindhoven, where she runs the professorship on thought leadership. She teaches on thought leadership and gives tailored company advice on the topic.

Kym Kettler-Paddock

Kym Kettler-Paddock (MSc) graduated from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. She won the 2010 Shell Award for her thesis on thought leadership.