By Carla Johnson published October 22, 2013

Why Your Thought Leadership Strategy Should Make You Uncomfortable

model of innovation cycleThought leadership strategy is a common component of content marketing — and for good reason. It’s true that thought leaders tend to be the most successful professionals in their fields, and thus exert the most influence over potential followers. The problem is that the term “thought leader” is often thrown around without any foundational evidence of what it truly takes to deserve the moniker.

By the abundance of anecdotal evidence, it would appear that a large volume of content is one criterion that justifies the definition. Another seems to be sharing a unique insight at one particular moment in time — sort of the “one hit wonder” of thinking — rather than long-term sustainability of original ideas. 

When he created his masterpiece, “The Thinker,” French artist Auguste Rodin created a man in an awkward, unnatural, and uncomfortable position: sitting, with his right hand on his left knee, supporting his chin.

Take a minute and try to replicate this position.

It’s awkward. Unnatural. And uncomfortable. You have to think just to get into that position.

When I hear “thought leader,” I think of an individual or company that audiences (inside, outside, and shoulder-to-shoulder) recognize as the foremost authority in their area of specialization, and who/that profits from this recognition.

To be deserving of the title of thought leader, you have to get familiar with an awkward, unnatural, and uncomfortable position. And, you have to get comfortable with discomfort itself, because that’s the fertile ground from which innovation springs.

Spreading ideas

That’s certainly the case with content marketing. To successfully use content to benefit a thought leadership strategy, you have to understand what constitutes a remarkable vision, how to effectively capture attention and share it with the masses, and know the steps to take to move from idea to adoption. Innovation, regardless of how good, can’t be successful without acceptance and influencing a change in behavior.

In 1962, a professor of rural sociology named Everett Rogers wrote a book called Diffusion of Innovation that couldn’t apply more to the crazy marketing world in which we’re living today.

Rogers’s model sought to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas spread through cultures. How people move through the steps to make a decision (knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation, and confirmation) directly impacts the phase of the innovation cycle they’re in — information you need to know before you can create thought leadership content that will capture and enrapture them.

Diffusion of innovation

When it comes to acceptance and adoption of innovation, Rogers said that the people in every society (and I’ll extend that to industry) can be divided into five different groups, broken out as follows:

  1. Innovators – 2.5%
  2. Early Adopters – 13.5%
  3. Early Majority – 34%
  4. Late Majority – 34%
  5. Laggards – 16%

When it comes to positioning yourself (or your company) as a thought leader, you have to understand how to identify, engage, and influence those who lead the pack — the Innovators and Early Adopters — and to inspire the Early Majority to follow suit.

The Innovators are the first to adopt new ideas they feel make sense, and to move industries (society) in the direction of their vision. They’re willing to take risks and adopt new ideas, even though they may fail. They lead the bleeding edge.

Hot on their tails stand the Early Adopters. This group has the highest degree of opinion leadership among all of the groups. While similar to the Innovators, they prove more discrete in their choices because they realize that careful decisions will help them retain their leadership position. They’re driven by a vision and are willing to rely on gut feelings when an idea can’t yet be backed by proof.

As innovation moves to the Early Majority and beyond it becomes diffused, as others come into the mix and try to replicate and imitate, rather than put forth insightful original opinions of their own. This clutters the conversation, creates noise, and confuses and frustrates customers.

Content’s role

As you create your thought leadership strategy, it’s not enough to plan topics and then distribute. You have to understand how ideas evolve to meet the needs of a more demanding — and less risk-adverse — customer base. Think of the leaps and bounds Innovators and Early Adopters have taken with mobile technology, and you’ll recognize that innovation doesn’t always mean product — often it can mean delivery, as well.

To be a true, sustainable thought leader, you have to remember Rodin and get comfortable sitting in the awkward right-hand-on-left-knee pose. Because there’s always something to gain from getting out of your comfort zone — not just in down times, but especially when the going’s good.

Where do I begin?

If you don’t know where to turn or where to start, just think “What Would Rodin Do?” He’d probably put people and industries in an uncomfortable position and force them to think about what matters to them, how to look at things differently, and articulate a vision of what a different future could look like.

And that, ultimately, should be the impetus of every thought leadership strategy.

To learn more about content’s role in innovation and thought leadership, read Joe Pulizzi’s new book, “Epic Content: How to Tell a Different Story, Break through the Clutter, & Win More Customers by Marketing Less.”

Author: Carla Johnson

Recognized as one of the top 50 influencers in content marketing, Carla's latest book, Experience: The 7th Era of Marketing, with CMI's Robert Rose, teaches marketers how to develop, manage, and lead the creation of valuable experiences in their organizations. Carla serves as the Vice President of Thought Leadership for the Business Marketing Association (a division of the ANA), and is an instructor for the Content Marketing Institute, the ANA, and Rutgers University. A frequent speaker, Carla also contributes to industrywide news outlets, forums and conferences on the future of the B2B marketing profession, leading through innovation and storytelling. Learn more at Type A Communications and follow her on Twitter at @CarlaJohnson.

Other posts by Carla Johnson

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  • ‘TC’ Teresa Clark

    Hey Carla,

    Really enjoyed reading this article! We definitely need to understand how ideas are evolving to meet the needs of the customer base. Here is something that I do when creating content to meet the needs of the customers.

    I produce content that comes from the people who understand the most about why somebody buys, the consumer. Customers are a vital resource when making content material to help you boost your business’s success. Not only will they tell stories about their experience with you, they may also have quirky antidotes that can help boost the morale and performance of your organization.

    Thanks for sharing,


    • Carla Johnson


      I agree! Tapping customer expertise is something many marketers don’t think of, but it’s a gold mine. Not only will they tell you what they don’t like about today, they’re wonderful at helping to create the “what if” vision and conversation for tomorrow.

      Thanks for sharing your insights,

  • rhonda hurwitz

    Carla, your article is a good reminder that we marketers have to meet people where they are. Recently, I had occasion to talk to two 70+ year olds who don’t even own a computer. We can’t forget that that is some company’s target market!

    -Rhonda (for @icopyright)

    • Carla Johnson


      In our digital world, it’s easy to forget that many people are happier living without it. Not everyone’s online all the time, and we need to really know who we’re talking to and how they communicate before we can woo them as an audience.


  • Craig Badings

    Carla thanks, yours is one of the more thoughtful articles on thought leadership I have read over the past few years. Dr Liz Alexander and I will be exploring this in more detail on our blog with particular emphasis on creative thinking, ‘slow content’ and how your ideas need to break people’s mental myopia in order to get through to them and provide insights of value.

    By the way not all thought leadership needs to be content heavy or certainly not in the way we expect viz blogs, websites, white papers, etc. It all hinges on the size and nature of your audience. I did some work with a law firm a couple of years ago who had a small universe of people they wanted to reach. They shared their research and insights via intimate one on one and small group sessions. This particular campaign was more engagement and conversational heavy than content heavy.

    • Carla Johnson

      I appreciate your kind words and am happy that you found the post so helpful. I love your approach to breaking mental myopia of thought leadership. We run at a crazy pace and it’s hard to get people to slow down and reflect on where industries are going, but it’s critical. Giving them less demanding content as you describe will make it less overwhelming to engage.

      Looking forward to seeing your explorations on thought leadership,

      • Carla Johnson

        I also don’t know why my picture just showed up like a billboard, but there it is!

    • Carla Johnson


      I appreciate your kind words and am happy that you found the post so helpful. I love your approach to breaking mental myopia of thought leadership. We run at a crazy pace and it’s hard to get people to slow down and reflect on where
      industries are going, but it’s critical. Giving them less demanding content as
      you describe will make it less overwhelming to engage.

      Looking forward to seeing your explorations on thought leadership,


  • Ellie Gee

    This is an eye-opener for executives who are finally grasping the idea that thought leadership—which seems “soft” and intangible in terms of measurable results—is an important part of a content marketing strategy. While they’re starting to buy in, it’s still hard for some of them to resist the idea that they can just wave their wand and become the thought leader in their industries. Or apply one thought leadership strategy uniformly to all adoption groups, from innovators to laggards. Or worse yet, use their product messaging as the boilerplate for thought-leadership activities.

    Recently while prepping an executive—an aspiring thought leader of the wand-waving variety—I asked if he could get through an entire industry panel discussion without mentioning his product. He nearly panicked because he didn’t know what else to talk about. Your Rodin analogy certainly draws a parallel here for me.

    Thanks for the great reminder that this is not just a checklist tactic.

    • Carla Johnson

      Ellie –
      I would have loved to see the look on his face! That’s an excellent exercise to put people through when you’re training them to talk about their approach to thought leadership.

      Few companies think about how to segment and personalize their thought leadership, and doing so makes it that much more powerful. True thought leaders know exactly who they’re leading, and they know how, when and where to reach them.

      Let me know how the panel discussion turns out, 🙂

  • Naomi Garnice

    Thanks for sharing, Carla. I like your points about Innovators and Early Adopters.

    • Carla Johnson

      Thanks, I’m glad that it was useful. What works well for you in thought leadership?

  • Ryan Hines

    Carla, it’s great to see you tackle thought leadership AND content marketing. Sometimes these are treated as separate and even opposing concepts. Do you adhere to the Fight Club rule of thought leadership?

    • Carla Johnson


      Do you find that people consider them to be separate? I do. But they aren’t.

      First up, The Fight Club is one of may all-time favorite movies. Love the post, and yes, I agree with it. It’s like Margaret Thatcher said, “Power (or thought leader) is like being a lady…if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

      Thanks for chiming in,

  • Roderick Hunnicut

    thanks for sharing this unique content. great definition of innovation of leadership.

    a leadership strategy you have to know the advantage and dis-advantages on your strategy and being ready the out comes on it, in-short acceptance is a must not just because your a leader you know everything.

    • Carla Johnson


      You’re right, you have to know yourself inside and out very well to understand your unique position as a thought leader. An exceptional leaders knows that they don’t know everything. But they’re willing to intelligently ask questions to move the conversation forward.


  • Julie Sheridan

    At last! Something sensible about the oft-overused and starting-to-grate ‘thought leadership’.

    • Carla Johnson


      It’s used to often and generically that it’s losing its meaning. What phrase would you like to see replace it?


      • Julie Sheridan

        Not sure why we need a phrase at all. Why can’t smart people just write insightful articles?

        • Carla Johnson

          Love it!

  • Dean Bocari

    Great article!

    ps: first time at CMI, first comment on a post at CMI… and first time I’ve had about 15 tabs from the same website on my browser — all because of CMI. haha.

    • Carla_Johnson


      Welcome! And I find myself in the same boat with finding so much “goodness” from CMI. 🙂


  • Dr. Deana Murphy

    Delightful article. Great information worth chewing on.

    • Carla_Johnson

      Thanks Deana, I’m happy that you found it helpful.