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Is thought leadership just a wanky marketing buzzword?

Feb 13, 2023

Yes, it kinda is. 

I like it, obviously. 

But I can see how it turns people off. 

They don’t know what it means. 

Or they’ve heard it and dismiss it as a bullshirt term like these: 

  • agile 
  • disruption 
  • ideation 

And I SO get that. 

What do the Like Minded Bitches Drinking Wine think? 

Someone (unrelated to me) jumped into this 150,000+ member Facebook group and asked people about thought leadership: 

  • Are you familiar with the term thought leadership?
  • If so, what do you think of it? 
  • Would you like to be seen as a thought leader? 

And jeez. Of the 121 comments, only a fraction of people like the term. 

Here’s what people had to say. 

In general, the members of this group think thought leadership is: 

  • culty
  • pretentious
  • wanky 
  • fake
  • akin to multi-level-marketing pyramid schemes
  • overused and becoming irrelevant
  • an annoying buzzword

Also, if you call yourself a thought leader, be prepared for massive suspicion, and immediate dismissal. 


Not gonna lie, reading the comments was a downer for me. As a thought leadership coach, I did briefly consider shutting up shop. 

But on consideration, I don’t worry. 

Because even if you don’t like it, thought leadership is a thing.

It’s a trend that isn’t going away. You don’t have to call yourself  a thought leader. But if you share free helpful stuff as a way of raising your profile, that’s thought leadership. It’s not fake or pretentious. It’s a genuine, legitimate marketing tactic. 

When I first heard the term thought leadership

Back in my PR agency days, in the mid 2000s, we started talking about thought leadership. For us, it was a way to position our clients’ senior executives as dynamic industry thinkers. 

So we’d publish white papers, and opinion pieces and then share them with the media via press releases and interview pitches. 

All this activity? We called it thought leadership. 

But really, all it was just showing up and having an opinion. 

The yoga teacher and the thought leadership kerfuffle 

Back in the late 2000s, our Sydney office had pulled together a proposal for a yoga teacher who wanted to raise her profile. For some reason, it was the role of the Melbourne office to then follow up the proposal and meet with her. She was a very intimidating woman. She was sinewy, clearly physically fit with hulking lean arms like a bodybuilder. She talked to us like a bunch of dopey children. Not the right fit for our PR agency. 

But I do remember her complaining that the proposal was full of spelling errors. When I asked her where, with genuine confusion, she pointed out the term: thought leadership. 

She was not familiar with the phrase and thought it was a typo. 

So I had the uncomfortable experience of explaining it to her, when I didn’t really know what it was myself. 

After that, I banned the use of fluffy marketing terms like thought leadership from our proposals. After all, if we’re using terms our potential clients aren’t familiar with, we are not demonstrating our ability to speak with and connect with their customers. 

So I considered thought leadership a total wank-fest. 

Now I think differently. 

Thought leadership is a corporate term, sure. 

But to me, it is an accurate reflection of these activities: 

  • showing up and having an opinion
  • sharing free helpful stuff 
  • gaining a profile as a trustworthy voice in your industry 

It doesn’t have to mean fancy white papers, research studies or CEO speaking gigs (they are nice though). 

But it is strategic. My work focuses on using SEO keywords, to optimise your online content for search terms. Your customers are typing search queries into Google everyday (or increasingly, speaking them). Thought leadership content helps you be found — at the precise moment when a customer decides they need you and they’re researching a solution. 

That is very much NOT a wank. That is bloody awesome! 

For me, it’s about making the thought leadership model that big brands use and making it more available to smaller business owners. So you can compete with the bigger players in your industry. Widen your sphere of influence. Be known for your special thing. Become a trusted voice in your industry. 

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