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MGMThink Sponsored Series

MGM Defining Thought Leadership

3p Weekend: What Does Thought Leadership Mean in the 21st Century?

By Mary Mazzoni

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

Two decades ago, if a large corporation even mentioned sustainability, it was quickly dubbed a thought leader in the space.

But the 21st century brought with it new realities. The global population is booming and is expected to reach at least 9 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, more people around the world are rising out of poverty and into the middle class -- a welcome trend that also ushers in new challenges, such as how to meet the growing demand for goods in a resource-constrained world with a warming climate.

Such challenges demand new thinking about what it means to be a thought leader. This summer, TriplePundit is launching our second series in partnership with MGM Resorts International. After teaming up with the MGM Foundation for a conversation about women's leadership last year, we'll now take a deep-dive into what it means to be a thought leader in the 21st century, with the support of MGMThink, an MGM Resorts International online platform.

To kick off the series, 3p took to social media to ask our readership of sustainability and business professionals what thought leadership means to them. Given the realities of a climate-constrained world, many of our experts called for an expanded definition of thought leadership -- or even another term entirely.

Here's what they had to say:

Andrea Learned, independent thought leadership strategist and authentic social voice developer: "Leaders become influencers through the consistent, thoughtful engagement (in person and on social media) in two-way conversations.

"'Thought leaders' today realize their responsibility for leaving a digital footprint of their developed wisdom and experience upon which future leaders can build. They deliberately and strategically build foundations of trust in publicly-visible conversations that engage employees and help foster new partnerships or collaborations externally (among other things). The 'on high' or ivory tower thought leader of yesterday can't compete in any sense...

"These are great days of impact opportunity for leaders who step fully into the role."

Nick Aster, founder and publisher of TriplePundit: "I'd like to see 'thought leadership' be turned into actual leadership -- driving actual action. Thoughts are good, but it's time to move beyond thoughts!"

Tim Gnatek, co-founder, partner and president of Blue Practice: "Thought leadership is more potent and accessible today than ever. With social media and self-publishing tools, anyone can take a global platform as a thought leader. Not everyone should. We have entered an age where the loudest, not the wisest, seize too much airtime.

"We need to encourage the real heroes in sustainability to empower themselves and raise their voices in a way that elevates, inspires and guides us. We don't need thought leaders. We need leaders."

Joanne Sonenshine, founder of Connective Impact and advisor on partnership and collaboration strategy: "Thought leadership is most impactful when the stories told, experiences had, and work delivered yield greater justice, empathy and laser focus on opportunities for human beings to thrive."

Ben Gruitt, manager of sustainability and special projects for the Corn Refiners Association: "Thought leaders have typically been considered the trusted source in their particular field of expertise. Yet the world of today demands more. There is an increasing need to consider social and environmental factors on the same level as economic ones, which challenges leaders to think more broadly.

"Our increasing scientific understanding of the world reveals how interdependent seemingly disparate elements are, and true thought leaders must step beyond the boundaries of their field to challenge the status quo. Those who are able to think in systems and inspire others to act in the interest of all involved in that system will be the successful thought leaders of the 21st century."

John Friedman, sustainability manager for WGL Holdings, Inc.: "Thought leadership is a misnomer. Thanks to digital media and real-time information, we are living in the age of 'collaborative co-creation.'"

Scott Weislow, global business partner program leader for Arrow Electronics: "The term 'thought leadership' has been grossly overplayed, in my opinion. Too many people think that having what they deem as original thought makes it leadership, when in fact leadership goes well beyond thoughts and ideas, with many more layers of complexity to it.

"True leadership is energy-driving, collaborative efforts structured around a goal-oriented vision that is well thought-out by true subject matter experts with the passion and know-how to rally teams to align and drive progress."

David Wilcox, founder of ReachScale: "Thought leadership is a very global north idea. That one can lead thoughts suggests a bias that the knowledge can be organized and then others can get their hands dirty applying it. Successful social enterprises are led by people who consider thinking without actually solving the problems as fraudulent. The solving of the challenges is the actual leadership. I can't tell you the number of books I've scanned by 'thought leaders' and set aside because it was immediately clear they did not contain first-hand leader learnings."

Timothy R. Eyab, CEO of Hamlinks: "Thought leadership does not mean a leadership that thinks without doing. To me it's the opposite. It means [a leader who] is ahead in his area of expertise. Who does not miss a goal. You can not do away with thought leadership in any area of human endeavor ... We need thought leaders to steer the sustainability and corporate behavior-ship."

Marc Seago, independent marketing consultant: "A thought leader needs to be truly conscious in today's world. Understanding the past, the present and imagining the future -- seeing beyond the companies' bottom-line. Applying common sense, good social judgement and being pragmatic in all actions."

Julie Hancher, co-founder and editor of Green Philly Blog: "A thought leader in the 21st century should look at the complex whole picture. How do we move forward to create a more sustainable world balancing new, exciting technology, business and the best interest of humans? The next great thought leaders will weigh these factors collectively to help solve our current climate problems."

Jeff Mcintire-Strasburg, founder and editor of Sustainablog and job coach for MERS Missouri Goodwill Industries: "A 21st-century thought leader sees the networks and interconnections that aren't obvious to the rest of us, explains those connections/networks in terms that the rest of us can grasp, and advocates for action based on this bigger picture."

Over the next three months, we plan to explore the concept of thought leadership in greater detail. It's clear that the challenges facing society today demand a coupling of thought and action -- and a closer look at what leadership means. Keep an eye on this page for more.

What does thought leadership mean to you? Join the conversation in the comments section below.

Image credit: Flickr/David Sanabria

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni