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There is a growing interest in what was once called "informal leadership", a label used to describe employees who take charge temporarily in their teams throughout organizations despite having no formal authority over anyone.

Today, we talk about ‘’distributed leadership’’ or ‘’shared leadership’, less dismissive terms than ‘’informal leadership’’. And organizations with lots of it are "leaderful". The rationale for these ideas is the growing importance of knowledge work, the rapid pace of change and the now critical importance of innovation to competitive advantage. A related theme is that of self-organizing teams where members spontaneously take the lead rather than relying on formal leaders.

In this article, I want to outline a different kind of leadership that occurs in contexts where innovation is essential for success: thought leadership. I contend that this form of leadership is even more important than distributed or shared leadership, in this context at least. In addition, I argue that thought leadership is a purer form of leadership because, unlike shared or distributed leadership, it is uncontaminated by managerial elements. Gaining a clear understanding of thought leadership is essential if we want to fully grasp the organizational dynamics of rapidly innovating organizations. In this article I compare thought leadership to shared leadership and leaderful organizations, but I place more emphasis on how it differs from traditional positional leadership.

The New Leadership

Craig Pearce and his associates have done more than most to flesh out the concept of shared leadership. Arguing that complex knowledge work demands that we question traditional approaches to leadership, Pearce explains that ‘’Shared leadership occurs when all members of a team are fully engaged in the leadership of the team…’’.1

J. A. Raelin, author of a book on ‘’leaderful organizations,’’ claims that: "Some so-called “leaderless” groups are no longer in need of a leader, or even a facilitator, because the group has learned to conduct its affairs on its own…leadership, at this point, becomes distributed across all members.  It is not leaderless; it is leaderful.  It is full of leadership since everyone shares the experience of providing leadership."2

Neither of these approaches to dispersed leadership differentiates management from leadership. They both regard as leadership the efforts of team members to help the group manage its progress toward the achievement of its goals. Pearce notes that ‘’shared leadership is consistent with familiar tenets of empowerment such as power sharing and selective devolution of decision making authority.’’3 So, it appears that both leaderful organizations and shared leadership portray team members as taking some of the responsibilities normally held by the formal team leader for organizing and executing joint tasks. Thought leadership, by contrast has none of these managerial overtones of organizing action, executing tasks, making decisions or coordinating effort toward achieving joint goals. Thought leaders are not empowered, not given authority to make decisions. They are, rather, what Gary Hamel calls revolutionaries4, employees who challenge the status quo and press for change. They can demonstrate this form of leadership with no involvement in managing people or task execution, informally or otherwise.

What is Thought Leadership?

Thought leadership is based on the power of ideas to transform the way we think. Ideas for new products or services are sometimes so demonstrable or convincing that they carry the day without any overt effort to influence prospective followers. It is because new knowledge often speaks for itself that thought leadership does not depend on the power of personality, larger than life influencing skills or the authority of position. Most doctors did not need to be persuaded to adopt heart transplant surgery once Christiaan Barnard demonstrated its feasibility. Thought leadership can be shown by example, logical argument, factual presentation, or an emotional appeal where necessary. It is simply the championing of new ideas laterally to peers or upwards to superiors. Thought leadership is based on innovation but they are not identical. Some thought leaders are quiet innovators who, lacking influencing skills, must demonstrate the merits of their ideas. Other thought leaders are not personally creative but they are early adopters of new technology and, hence, quick to champion new ideas. Thought leadership can range from high risk, revolutionary products through minor changes to operating procedures.

Consider these examples:

  • Sally is a newly hired retail sales assistant who was recruited from a market leading competitor. Sally’s superior sales and customer service training enabled her to get off to a fast start. Without realizing it, she showed her new colleagues, by example, how to serve customers much more effectively.
  • George is a junior HR specialist, fresh out of university. The first organization that employed him had an antiquated performance appraisal system. Over a period of 3 months, George convinced the HR Director to adopt a new system that has led to higher performance levels at other organizations.
  • Frederick is a software developer working on his own in Poland. He specializes in e-commerce applications. One day he developed a much more secure online shopping application which he offered for sale on his website. Other developers all over the world quickly adopted Frederick’s approach.
  • A team of product developers met to brainstorm the next generation of their company’s leading product. No one arrived at the meeting with any good ideas, but after half a day of brainstorming a great idea for a new product emerged. While the outcome was primarily a group effort, one person, Karen, was quick to spot and champion what became the group’s preferred option.
  • Patrick successfully fended off a drive to replace an established surgical procedure at his hospital by citing new evidence of the technique’s superiority over the new one being proposed.

These examples illustrate some of he key features of thought leadership. None of the people showing thought leadership manages anyone else. Their leadership was shown to peers or superiors, not to subordinates. In each case, thought leadership did not involve working with a group to achieve a joint outcome. It was complete when others bought the new idea. In George’s case, it was up to the HR Director to implement his proposal for a new performance appraisal system, hence George’s leadership came to an end once his idea was accepted. Frederick showed leadership to the group of all software developers worldwide working in the same area, so he was not even a member of a working team. Patrick’s thought leadership defended an existing practice so did not even lead to any new action, just a change in what his colleagues thought or believed.

Sally’s leadership was by example and not even intentional. Karen’s leadership was not deliberate either. It emerged spontaneously in a brainstorming session where the stimulating context deserved at least as much credit for the ensuing leadership as Karen did. The new product that emerged from Karen’s insight still had to be implemented. All members of this group showed leadership to each other. One of them took the proposal and showed upwards leadership to convince management to buy it. Finally, management then had to implement the proposal. No one in Karen’s group was involved in the traditional leadership of managing a team to manufacture the product. Only George’s thought leadership required some fairly strong influencing skills, but even here, his success in convincing his boss to change the performance appraisal system was based on hard evidence not inspirational influencing skills or an emotional appeal.

Not all thought leadership is so easy, however. There are countless examples where entrepreneurial types champion ideas for new products to their bosses only to meet with rejection. Too often they have to leave and start their own business to demonstrate the worth of their ideas. These are examples of thought leadership that failed within organizations but which became successful instances of thought leadership in the larger market place.

Key Characteristics of Thought Leadership

  1. Thought leadership is simply the promotion of a new idea whether by example, logical argument, factual demonstration or inspiring appeal.
  2. It can be shown by non-managerial employees, being a type of initiative, not a position or role.
  3. It can be directed up as well as down. This is not so easy to imagine with shared or distributed leadership because of the managerial connotations of these concepts. It would be unusual for a low level knowledge worker to lead a project team made up of higher level managers, though it is not inconceivable. In any case, if such an oddity happened, the thought leader would, temporarily, be managing his or her bosses and hence no longer leading upwards.
  4. Thought leadership is fast shifting, ephemeral and egalitarian – it cannot be as readily monopolized as positional leadership; it is non-hierarchical. No one has a monopoly on new ideas and knowledge workers are often more interested in differentiating themselves through their technical excellence than by striving for group domination.
  5. It changes how people think and does not necessarily lead to action as we saw in the example of defending an established surgical procedure. It is an impact on people rather than a solicitation to join a leader on a journey. When new action does in fact ensue from thought leadership, the idea’s implementation is a separate phase that might be managed by someone else, hence thought leadership does not get things done by itself. Thought leadership stops once the idea for change has been accepted. Implementation entails a journey from idea to outcome where thought leadership sells the tickets for the journey. Someone else may well drive the bus to the destination.
  6. Thought leadership is similar to innovation but not identical to it. Thought leaders might be personally creative but they can also be quick to champion the ideas of people who are more creative.
  7. It depends on technical, rather than personal, credibility, character or integrity because the changes advocated do not necessarily challenge fundamental values and the thought leader is not necessarily asking followers to follow him or her on a journey to an uncertain destination. In addition, because thought leadership does not entail responsibility for others, thought leaders do not need to be personally trustworthy. So long as their ideas are credible or demonstrable, they can be quite shifty characters and we might still buy their ideas. For example, when we discover a new piece of software online, download it and find it works, we can accept it without even knowing who developed it let alone need to trust the developer.
  8. Unlike shared or distributed leadership, thought leadership can come from outside the organization, hence is not limited to working teams or even to people personally known to each other as we saw with Fredrick, the Polish software developer. Knowledge workers can take their lead from industry gurus, for example. This is similar to the leadership of the likes of Martin Luther King or Winston Churchill who have an impact on people they never meet – even after they are dead! In our era of globalization, we need to think beyond organizational teams to global ‘’groups.’’ Thought leadership applies equally to local and global groups, tightly knit teams and loose, widely dispersed interest groups. This is very different from shared leadership where team members are part of a close-knit working team or n the case of leaderful organizations, where there is a strong emphasis on community and cooperative effort.
  9. Because thought leadership can be achieved through the factual demonstration of an idea, it can be shown by employees with poor interpersonal skills. It is because good ideas can often be demonstrated that we can be influenced by eccentrics or lone inventors who have poor interpersonal skills. Hence emotional intelligence is not essential for thought leadership.
  10. Inspirational influencing skills may be required to move whole organizations, especially when fundamental values are at stake, but small scale, local leadership can be shown by less personally inspiring employees. Positional leaders also need to be inspirational to climb to the top of the hierarchy. Knowledge workers are generally more impressed by displays of technical competence than they are by emotional appeals. Hospitals, for example, are big on what they call ‘’evidence-based’’ practice where, clearly, leadership is about proving that a new idea does in fact work.
  11. Thought leadership is organic, it can emerge in the heat of battle as in brainstorming. Top down leadership is mechanistic by virtue of being deliberate and rational – where rational means that analysis and decision making precede action. By contrast, thought leadership can emerge through organizational learning, trial and error experiment, where new directions are discovered rather than rationally chosen prior to action.
  12. Thought leadership has a competitive dimension that is missing in conventional leadership when it is portrayed as a completely collaborative undertaking with its emphasis on joint goal achievement. By contrast, the thought leader is saying: ‘’I have a better idea.’’ Showing thought leadership does not need to be confrontational but any debate about what to do is a battle of sorts between competing ideas. This makes it more like market or sports leadership where leaders achieve a temporary lead in a competitive contest rather than maintain an appointed position in a hierarchy. This is important because innovation is a contest of ideas. Unlike sports and market leadership, however, no thought leadership is successful unless people accept the idea. Hence thought leadership has both competitive and followership elements. It can be both win-win and win-lose while sports and market leadership are only win-lose.
  13. Because traditional leadership is defined in terms of influencing skills instead of simply the championing of new directions, it is seen as a set of learnable skills. It is also perceived as learnable because of its infusion of managerial elements, most of which can indeed be aquired in a classroom or through experience. But when you strip leadership to its core, leaving aside the managerial elements and classifying influencing skills as situational, you are left with challenging the status quo. Thought leadership is based on natural dispositions to challenge the status quo, to create, to rebel and to compete – in short, a spirit of adventure. There is a correlation between youthful rebelliousness and creativity. The same applies to thought leadership. Still, instances of thought leadership can range from small suggestions about a minor working practice to revolutionary changes in strategic direction, so all employees can show some thought leadership. Those who show thought leadership must be willing to risk rejection. The more controversial their idea, the more they must want to make their point than be accepted by others. Thought leaders are no more born than artists or musicians, but they all share a drive to differentiate themselves through bringing something new into the world. This is not a learned skill set.
  14. Thought leadership cannot be directive or transactional. You can direct people to do a task in a certain way or reward them when it is done as you want it done, but you may not achieve more than compliance. However, you cannot direct or reward people as a means of inducing them to change what they think, believe or value. You need to convince people of the value or truth of your idea if you want them to really believe it as opposed to just saying they will go along with you.


Thought leadership sheds light on the dynamics of organizations in knowledge intensive industries that depend on innovation for survival. Whatever your views on the relationship between leadership and management, it seems clear that thought leadership is a more specialist function in that it focuses solely on the promotion of new ideas. Kouzes and Posner5 make ‘’challenging the way’’ one of their 5 leadership principles. Of course they are thinking of traditional, positional leadership, but they are surely correct to highlight this essential component of all leadership – challenging the status quo. Thought leadership focuses on just this element. It is the motor of innovation-based competition when we meld pure inventive creativity with the promotion and exploitation of innovation. The key plank of my argument for placing thought leadership in such a niche is that it is independent of the implementation of new ideas. It must be if it is capable of upward direction. This is the essential difference between thought leadership, on the one hand, and shared leadership or leaderful organizations on the other. The latter two conceptualizations may include the championing of new ideas, but they place at least as much emphasis on organizing and coordinating task achievement such that the role of thought leadership becomes buried in a much wider range of activity. Shared leadership and leaderful organizations are potentially useful ideas but they unfortunately do not really capture what is going on in competitive knowledge work where constant innovation is the key to success. Compared to thought leadership, these seemingly novel ideas are little more than an extrapolation of empowerment.


  1. Pearce, Craig, ‘’The future of leadership: Combining vertical and shared leadership to transform knowledge work’’, Academy of Management Executive, 2004, Vol 19. No.1.
  2. Raelin, Joseph A., ‘’The Leaderful Community’’, Innovative Leader, June 2003, Vol 12, No.6.
  3. Pearce, Craig, ‘’Toward a Model of Shared Leadership and Distributed Influence in the Innovation  Process,’’ in Craig Pearce and Jay A. Conger, eds, Shared Leadership: Reframing the Hows and Whys of Leadership,2003, Sage Publications, Inc
  4. Hamel, Gary, Leading the Revolution, 2001, Harvard Business School Press. 
  5. Kouzes, J. and Posner, B, The Leadership Challenge, Third Edition, 2002, Jossey  Bass.

This article was originally published in Management Decision, Vol 43, No. 7/8, 2005.

See alsoCreative Class LeadershipMicroleadership and Bottom-Up Leadership.

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