Business Thought Leadership Strategy #IKNS

Columbia University CrownArt Kleiner is an editor-in-chief at strategy + business and Booz & Co. His talk is based on materials he developed with George Roth at MIT’s Organizational Learning Center (now the Society for Organizational Learning).

[These are my notes from Columbia University’s 2013 summer residency program for its Masters of Science in Information and Knowledge Strategy. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Thought Leadership. The goal of thought leadership is that when someone is exposed to your thinking, they can imagine putting it to use and they are different for having gone through that thought experiment. In other words, they came away more capable than before they encountered your views. Thought leadership is the connection between your thinking and the thinking of people you haven’t yet met.
  • Writing.  “Writing is iterating.” (Writing is rewriting.) It is part of your craft to know how to put things together so well that your readers can take it apart and understand it. It also means simplify your message until you cannot simply further. Kleiner describes this as “dancing up to the edge of reductionism without falling into the abyss.”
  • Initial Writing Exercise:  If you had to prepare a message for the world, how would you answer the following: (1) What’s its title? (2) What’s its lesson? (3) Why this message? (Clarification: the “world” means any group of people that contains at least one person that you do not know personally.) Once you have completed this exercise, analyze it using the “four ways to think about creative work” outlined below.
  • Four ways to think about creative work. (1) What’s your purpose? What’s the explicit reason for why you want to do this and are willing to devote the time necessary to do this? (2) How do you build credibility? How do you fit your work within the established canon? How do you substantiate your work so that it is unshakeable? (3) What is the story you are trying to tell? And how does it resonate? (4) Who is the audience and how can we prepare your message so that those who are ready to hear it will be moved to listen to it and act. Each of these ways of thinking require a different focus and a different approach. The problem is that when we mix these up, it leads to writer’s block. Therefore, isolate each way and focus on it until you have reached a satisfactory point.
  • Purpose. A lot of people are lackadaisical when it comes to thinking about the purpose of their ideas. This is in part due to a sense of politeness that stops us from asserting our purpose over the purpose of another person. So we need to train ourselves to engage in the iterative exercise that Peter Senge recommends: ask what’s my purpose? Then ask: if I achieved my purpose, what would that make possible? And if I achieved that further purpose, what would that make possible, etc.?
  • Research. If you are presenting thought leadership based on research, part of your credibility will depend on the originality of your research. (That research can be based on primary and secondary sources.) One key way to establishing credibility is overcoming traps of the mind: (1) the problem of confusing cause/effect versus correlation; (2) internal consistency (e.g., behind every great fortune is a great crime – this is true until it isn’t); (3) category correspondence (does the theory actually fit the case you are trying explain); (4) universality (i.e., assuming that one successful case will be successful in all cases); (5) does your work have face validity (i.e., does it make sense — even if it is initially counterintuitive?). How much of this substantiation is needed for your thought leadership piece to be valid? Just enough. To test this ask:
    • What research supports your piece of work?
    • Is it enough?
    • How might its substantiation be challenged?
    • Are you prepared to be openly challenge about the validity of your work?
  • Telling the Story. Behind everyone of your projects, something life-changing happened to someone that will stay with them for the rest of their life. Your job as a thought leader is to identify and cultivate the story of each of those life-changing moments. “The power of the story is in the connection between the way it makes you feel and the thing it makes you understand.” Chances are, you already know what the relevant story is. (Every thought leadership piece has a story. You need to tell it in a way that resonates with your audience.) What you may not have done is understood what you are going to do with that story. In what direction will you take that story?
  • The Audience. You need to consider how to meet at least some of the expectations of your audience. “In the age of the internet, every interaction is like a play in which the audience can declare an intermission and leave at any moment.” Therefore, you need to give your audience something close enough to what they expect so they are willing to stay, and far enough from their expectations so they are not bored.
  • Additional Crafts. The creation of your work of thought leadership also includes the crafts of copyediting, layout and marketing. Each of those crafts can benefit from the analysis set out above.

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