The Four Dead Ends of CEO Thought Leadership

 Tina Hand/Unsplash

Tina Hand/Unsplash

Organizational thought leadership often starts at the top. And that’s where it usually dies, too.

That’s because many organizations still assume their leaders should automatically also be their thought leaders — and leave thought leadership development at that. In practice, that assumption can produce a lot of bad content and alienate other subject matter experts on staff who get shut out of writing and speaking opportunities they deserve and eventually become flight risks.

If you lead an organization and want to turn it into a thought leader — and become one in the process — first understand what not to do. Here are four dead ends you should avoid — the Alpha Dog, Vampire, Strangler and Ghost — plus an alternative path to embrace:

Dead End #1: The Alpha Dog: Alpha Dog eats before anyone else at her organization — and high on the menu are thought leadership opportunities: writing op-eds and books, giving interviews, guesting on podcasts, high-profile speaking gigs.

Thought leadership opportunities that Alpha Dogs can’t take on become internal political footballs — often doled out as rewards to staffers rather than distributed on merit and strategic value.

If one of the organization’s SMEs gets one of these invites first, they’re quickly made to understand their place in the the pecking order. Under an Alpha Dog, thought leadership goes through four stages of pain:

  • Because Alpha Dogs are too busy to be thought leaders — that is, to have a unique POV and high-informed, evidence-based solutions that matter to the decision-makers — the organization struggles to create and approve content quickly enough for them to enter debates and make a difference.
  • So the thought leadership they do excrete is cynical, dull Trojan horse marketing copy that’s quickly rejected by editors and disregarded by everyone the organization wants to reach.
  • The thought leadership opportunities that Alpha Dogs can’t take on become internal political footballs — often doled out as rewards to staffers rather than distributed on merit and strategic value.
  • Either the Alpha Dog continues doing thought leadership because she doesn’t care about the bad KPIs her content is getting, or she stops and declares it not worthwhile for the entire organization since it’s not working for her.

Dead End #2: The VampireAn especially pernicious mutant of the Alpha Dog. Typically, these leaders have little to say and few ideas of their own. Regardless, they swoop in to claim all their organization’s big ideas. They expect their staff SMEs to ghost write their thought leadership pieces and speeches. Vampires might even invite staff SMEs to co-author pieces with them on the SME’s own research, under the premise that the Vampire’s byline (which always comes first) will give the piece access to decision-maker audiences and the Vampire’s social followings. SMEs who work for Vampires take on a pale, haunted look — with good reason: they’re being drained alive of all their own knowledge capital. Working with Vampires is as creepy as it sounds.

Dead End #3: The Strangler. It’s common, especially in smaller organizations, for CEOs and division directors to develop a kind of founder’s syndrome around thought leadership — to say they support more staff becoming thought leaders, but to micromanage that process into the ground.

The Strangler has to see the draft of every blog post, the slides for every talk, the outline for every video. She edits everything and often rewrites or spikes it, saying that she’s standing up for quality. Quality content might well be an issue at the Strangler’s org (and there are ways to build it without exposing an organization to risk). But the Strangler’s real problem is that she hasn’t yet articulated a vision and a culture that can grow beneath and beyond her.

The Strangler’s real problem is that she hasn’t yet articulated a vision and a culture that can grow beneath and beyond her.

The endless grind of approvals and second-guessing deoxygenates the organization’s normal responsiveness to news pegs. Staff enthusiasm and entrepreneurism for generating content dwindles under the Strangler’s heavy hands. Nothing reveals an organization’s cultural fragilities faster than trying to expand its thought leadership program, especially with a Strangler in charge.

Dead End #4: The GhostUnlike the first three dead ends, the Ghost leaves no mark on his organization’s thought leadership. He’s invisible as a writer. His talks dematerialize, in part because he spends little time preparing them. He rhetorically supports developing other staff SMEs into thought leaders, but often disappears when it comes to resourcing those efforts. Finding time in his schedule for press can be an exercise in spirit photography. While Alpha Dogs, Vampires, and Strangler murder their thought leadership programs actively, the Ghost’s inattention and lack of participation often banishes though leadership to a kind of bardo state — alive, yes, but not really. The organization might not see him much, but it gets this message loud and clear.

So what’s a better alternative if you want to build your organization’s SMEs into thought leaders? The Thought-Leadership Incubator.

  • First, this kind of CEO understands the benefits an organization-wide culture of thought leadership can bring to product development, sales, fundraising, and talent acquisition and retention.
  • Next, even if she’s a thought leader in her own right, she’s also confident enough to give her staff the freedom and support to be thought leaders in their own subject matter expertise without undue interference, as long as their work meshes with the brand, messaging and objectives of the organization.
  • She also trusts her editorial staff to ensure that content alignment and build the profiles of those SMEs in ways that bring value to the organization.
  • To that end, she shares the earned media spotlight with her staff — especially the PR resources needed to land those placements.
  • She also encourages a vigorous thought leadership seedbed through internal communications vehicles — incentivizing staff to publish and supportively critique each other’s blogs, analyses or op-ed drafts on the company’s private networks.
  • Finally, she publishes and comments herself frequently on those internal channels and recognizes others who follow suit.

If you work for this kind of organization, you know it. It’s marked by patient patronage for developing high-value content; strong modeling of what a thought leader looks like; planned growth paths for budding thought leaders; and a sustained meritocracy around ideas, publishing and sharing thought leadership opportunities.

Making all this happen, of course requires, leadership. It’s easier just being an Alpha Dog, Vampire, Strangler or Ghost. Until it’s not.