Thought leadership is risky business

It is not possible to predict the future. But to some degree, all “experts” try. We pore over data, analyze trends, and do our best to form an opinion on what may happen next.

Major League Baseball players study hours of game footage so that they might guess when a certain pitcher will throw a fastball. Meteorologists build model after model, crunching scads of data to make the best possible forecasts. In the business world, lawyers and accountants speculate at how new regulations might affect their clients, and management consultants conduct in-depth analyses that inform guesses at market trends.

Everyone knows there’s a real chance of failure when making such predictions, especially when they involve change that takes place over a years-long horizon. In the early 1980s, for example, a McKinsey team, after conducting a rigorous analysis of the best available information at the time, famously told AT&T that only 900,000 cellular phones would be in use by the turn of the century. That estimate turned out to be less than 1 percent of the actual figure of 109 million. Of course no one accurately predicted the explosion of cell phone use. But those types of stories help explain why some experts are hesitant, or completely averse, to putting themselves at risk of being wrong.

The problem is that, without taking such risks, it’s impossible to be a true thought leader. When creating thought leadership, if you’re not willing to express a distinctive point of view, you may as well close that laptop and walk away.

So here are a couple things to consider.

Sometimes you’ll be wrong—and that’s OK

It’s OK, that is, if your underlying approach is sound. Those who highlight their analytical rigor can be forgiven when sometimes they make mistakes. For example, despite the glaring miscalculation of cell phone usage, the world’s biggest companies still seek McKinsey’s advice, and McKinsey consultants continue to make bold new predictions every day.

No doubt, going out on this proverbial limb can be scary, even for some of the world’s foremost experts. I once worked with a business school professor who was literally one of the five most learned people in the world on a specific financial topic. While he relished the chance to discuss his own opinions on that topic in private conversation, he flat-out refused to discuss them publicly, because he said there were others who knew more than he did.

Once I realized he wasn’t joking, I puzzled over why he would hesitate to share his views. Surely not every single piece of writing needed to be peer-reviewed—particularly if we made it clear these were highly educated guesses on financial trends. But I think the good professor’s decision was all about potential risk and reward. Even though we were simply writing an article for an alumni magazine, in his mind the risks of being wrong far outweighed the potential upside of spreading his knowledge to a wider audience.

It happens regularly that our clients get freaked out at the prospect of making a prediction. They sometimes propose to handle it by pushing off the prediction to a reliable external source. If you can say, for instance, that the National Association of Home Builders is forecasting a slowdown in housing starts, then your reputation is no longer on the line if the market continues to boom. You’re simply reporting publicly available data. Of course, the trade-off is that this part of your article ends up reading like every other article out there; without your point of view, there’s nothing distinctive about it. It will get lost in the interminable dross of quasi–thought leadership that pollutes company websites, social media, and blogs the world over.

Write like you mean it

It also happens regularly that our clients try to mitigate the risk of being wrong by making intentionally oblique statements or offering spiritless advice. And their target audiences see right through this approach.

As did presidential speechwriter Peter Robinson in June 1987. Upon reading his draft of Ronald Reagan’s now famous address in West Berlin, the State Department, the National Security Council (NSC), and the president’s top advisors all implored him not to directly challenge the Soviets. According to Robinson, the highest-ranking American diplomat in Berlin suggested replacing the now-iconic line, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” with, “One day, this ugly wall will disappear.” Robinson, according to his own account, was appalled:

“‘One day?’ One day the lion would lie down with the lamb, too, but you wouldn’t want to hold your breath. ‘This ugly wall will disappear?’ What did that mean? That the wall would just get up and slink off of its own accord? … What State and the NSC were saying, in effect, was that the President could go ahead and issue a call for the destruction of the wall—but only if he employed language so vague and euphemistic that everybody could see right away he didn’t mean it.”

But Robinson believed in and fought for delivering a forceful message. In the end, the president decided to take the risk. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Reagan’s forceful language and tone that day changed the world. If he had watered down his delivery as his advisors wanted, we wouldn’t be talking about it today.

When experts put forth similarly watered-down statements in interviews, articles, and white papers, readers sense that they lack confidence in their ideas. But if you want to change the world—whether it’s the world of politics, accounting, data analytics, or healthcare—you must have courage in your convictions. You must explain and support your point of view and mean what you say.

What it comes down to is this: It’s much easier to mean what you say and have courage in your convictions when you put in the hard work to come up with truly distinctive insights. Thought leaders don’t rearrange existing research or ideas; they bring new thinking and solutions to difficult problems. When you have insights that are new and intellectually sound, you have earned the right to be provocative.

Heather Ploog

Heather is the managing partner of Leff. Her background in business coupled with her experience in editing and user-created content has given her a unique skill set and advanced insight into both the management and editorial fields. She enjoys expounding in the Leff blog on the business writing tactics that bring clarity to complex ideas and make your content distinctive.

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