The big 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.

That said, thought leadership is not similar to innovation. Innovation is the process that translates an idea or invention into a product or service that customers are prepared to pay for. Innovation disrupts the status quo in product use, but does not necessarily entail novel thinking that goes beyond the product itself. The truth is that many companies have innovative ideas. That’s what business is about, after all: providing good services and products to meet customers’ needs. However, in an era in which society is facing truly daunting societal, economic and environmental issues, good product ideas are no longer enough to impress customers. They are on the lookout for refreshing viewpoints that break away from old thinking. IBM, for instance, did not just come up with a good idea on how to reduce energy consumption in homes and offices. Importantly, the company gave us a novel and thought-provoking perspective on the whole subject.

Mignon van Halderen

Dr Mignon van Halderen is an associate professor at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences, School of Communication in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. She heads the research group on thought leadership at and gives tailored advice to companies on this topic at

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.