Trawl the internet for the answer and by the end of it your head will be spinning and you will be significantly more confused than when you started out.

In the one camp you will find the marketing fraternity and others loudly proclaiming that thought leadership and personal branding are one and the same.  Then you have people from the purist school of thought leadership claiming that they’re two very separate beasts entirely.

And then you have folks like me who while agreeing primarily with the purists, recognise that in many instances there is some overlap, with both camps guilty of pinching ideas, strategies and techniques from each other.

Firstly let’s unpack what personal branding is. From my humble opinion personal branding is very much the art of establishing a highly prescribed image or impression of yourself in the market – from the way you appear in the online world right down to your personal appearance, behaviour, who you hang out with and your verbal and non-verbal communications. In some instances it can include building expertise in a certain area and providing your audience with really useful information that solves problems and provides value.

Ultimately personal branding is about carefully crafting and creating a very specific association or picture people have of you when they hear your name.

And the end-game of all this hard work is about driving business opportunities, landing that dream job or much-sought after promotion and basically getting noticed.

Bottom line, it’s about selling BRAND YOU!

So what’s thought leadership?

Thought leadership, on the other hand, is less about self-promotion and business promotion but more about the selling of ideas and new ways of thinking.

The term was coined back in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, the then editor-in-chief of the magazine, Strategy & Business.

According to Kurtzman, thought leaders are people who have “important ideas that are worth sharing and that have real application…

“A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”

They are the acknowledged industry authorities and the ‘go-to’ people in their field of expertise and the people who are regularly called on to provide informed opinion, commentary and valuable insights.

Unlike personal branding where the end-game is about turning a sale, landing a job and building visibility, thought leadership is more about building status and standing for your organisation, and getting great access to people (journalists, analysts, event organisers, investors, policy makers) and opportunities previously out of your reach.

For many it is also about fomenting change – disrupting or improving existing policies, practices and behaviours – and in the process making the world a better place!

Muddying of the thought leadership waters

Confusion between the two practices usually stems from the fact that thought leadership and personal branding aspirants are encouraged to carve out their expertise in a specific area and provide their target audiences with valuable information.

However, the big difference lies in the nature of the information they provide.

The information provided by proponents of personal branding is usually curated information. What is meant by curated information is that it is usually a mix of other people’s information, points of view and opinions. It is seldom and almost never their own.

Thought leaders on the other hand focus on original thought and the provision of fresh and new ideas, much of this thanks to study, time in their respective fields or careers or researching special interest topics.

Bottom line, they have knowledge others just don’t have.

Thought leaders are also capable of thinking outside the box, they usually provide the best and deepest answers to questions and most importantly, they never, never regurgitate the views of others.

They are genuine subject matter experts, not wannabes!

Keen to get started on your own thought leadership journey? Join our Thought Leadership Masterclass at Hub Melbourne on Tues, 19 September.


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