How to Reinvent the Networked Organization: Thought Leaders versus Functional Leaders

How to Reinvent the Networked Organization: Thought Leaders versus Functional Leaders

How to Reinvent the Networked Organization: Thought Leaders versus Functional Leaders 1222 656 Randolf Jessl

It’s all about innovation and transformation these days. However, rank hierarchies and status airs get in the way of bright and engaged people who should be listened to and take the lead. Thought Leadership may change things. And social media teach us how it works. Organizations need to learn their lessons.

By Randolf Jessl and Andreas Scheuermann

Have you ever heard about Simon Sinek (‘Start with Why’), Rand Fishkin (‘Search Engine Optimization’), Joe Pulizzi (‘Content Marketing’), Jurgen Appelo (‘Agility’) – to name just a few? If not, their area of expertise may obviously be of no relevance to you. Nevertheless, these people are subject matter experts and authorities without having been appointed by any university, association, or institution.

All of them are early adopters and diligent explorers of an innovative subject matter, have published extensively about their ideas, brought them on stage and attracted countless followers with online possibilities and opportunities galore to publish and network. This illustrates the power of a trend making marketing, communications, and media professionals gasp for breath: People use (new) media, turn into personal brands, gain and exert influence.

Why It’s All About Credibility

Their success is not only based upon new technological facilities but rather upon credibility. Surveys like Edelman Trust Barometer have been demonstrating for quite some time that institutions and function owners continuously lose attention and trustworthiness in their communication practice. The authentic professional experienced as a person, however, builds credibility and gains influence in advocating his/her subject matter.

These people dominate expert talks and more often than not use their reputation, knowledge, and ideas to set up their own businesses. They provide advice, give speeches, hold seminars, publish books, organize events, and develop products. For them, knowledge and entrepreneurship are closely linked. They have built their value proposition and converted it into cash.

We consider these people thought leaders or authorities – something they themselves would very wisely never ever do.

No one is a thought leader or authority but made one by others. In times of social media, ted talks, and conference tourism, people like them demonstrate how to find a niche, to take the initiative and the lead, and to attract and assemble others with their subject matter.

These people are quite valuable for companies and organizations, but they couldn’t care less. That’s why organizations should deal with thought leaders and the question why thought leadership makes a difference.

How to Become a Thought Leader

The American writer Dorie Clark has explored a number of examples to illustrate how to become a recognized expert and thought leader in her book ‘Stand Out’ (2015). Also, other literature about ‘Personal Brand’ or ‘Enterprise of You’ provides some insight into this process and phenomenon. Unfortunately, the concept of self-marketing, though, is rather disliked and refused in Germany.

Thought leadership is fundamentally distinct from plain personality PR and the urge of self-realization.

First and foremost, thought leaders care about knowledge and ideas. Their success is based upon publicity and relations in specific professional circles rather than popularity and fame in the general public. They build their reputation by positioning themselves with knowledge, energy, and creative power and by continuously publishing, performing, and networking.

They get attention and awareness by skillfully adopting a relevant new subject matter. This is the only way to obtain recognition considering the increasing background noise of our modern times. They attract followers by continuously developing their subject matter and at the same time by winning more and more people over for themselves and their mission.

Thought leaders do not comment upon anything and everybody but follow their own path with what they believe, say, and do.

Thought leaders do not evaluate their success by clicks, shares, and likes, but by the answer to the question whether they attract, influence, and retain the right people with their ideas.

It is essential to be able to put oneself, one’s knowledge and ideas on stage. However, the substance of what is published and broadcast is most important. This is also true for the internet these days. Google’s search engine programmers have configured their algorithms in a new way so that expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E.A.T.) of content and context determine the ranking of search items.

Why Horizontal Authority is Needed

The more these people are acknowledged, the more doors are opened by traditional media and established associations. Their network grows as well as their knowledge and influence. That’s why thought leaders are always influencers (to apply another term of our ‘zeitgeist’).

However, it’s important to know that these people act on a level playing field with their audience. Others follow them as they found out and know more about the subject matter, and as they radiate passion and creative power. The followers of thought leaders do so voluntarily and in anticipation of learning and benefiting along the way. With this in mind, let’s have a closer look at the interrelation of leading and following.

A thought leader is miles away from conventional authority.

This type of authority is not based upon power and submission like in conventional subordinate-supervisor relationships. Moreover, it has nothing to do with the authority of office holders and dignitaries who appear to know it all due to function and formality.

The authority of thought leaders is rather based upon expertise, experience, and ideas recognized and acknowledged by others. This kind of authority shifts the entitlement of leadership from vertical to horizontal as well as from personal rank and status to the assessment and judgement of those who are ready to follow. It’s not ‘Follow me as I am superior’ but rather ‘I follow you as you know, think, and do more than I do’ – i.e., with regards to this subject matter and in this situation, not in general or on principle.

In his book ‘Autoriteit (2015)* the Belgian university professor of clinical psychology and psychoanalysis Paul Verhaeghe describes horizontal authority. This kind of authority stems from groups that are to a large extent horizontally structured as a network, and authority is continually shifting among its members.

How to Rethink the Networked Organization

As published in 2016 in ‘acatech Impulse’, chief HR officers of corporate Germany consider this phenomenon ‘fluent authority’ and are ready to promote it: ‘The digitization entails an introversive revolution – but hierarchies won’t cease to exist. Within hierarchies, though, there will be an increasing number of fluent authorities: authority only or primarily in domains an employee calls his/her area of expertise.’

Within self-organized teams, horizontal authority is applied as shared or distributed leadership. At corporate level, we lack similar models.

Thought leadership as an analogy to the activities of masterminds in social networks and free markets would close this gap. However, corporate and people leaders and developers should answer these questions first:

  • Are we ready to consider the individual not just a resource but a potential thought leader?
  • Do we offer the necessary structure and culture for experts thinking fast (and) forward? Can they take the lead with their ideas and launch initiatives?
  • Despite team, job, and hierarchy thinking: Are we ready to accord individuals a degree of superiority that’s merely based upon more knowledge, effort, energy?
  • Do we have the necessary programs to reward, promote, and develop authority?
Why Enterprises Benefit from Thought Leaders

Within organizations, people with knowledge, effort, energy do also deserve to be acknowledged, to attract others, and to take the lead for a number of reasons:

  1. Ensuring that internal thought leaders with their individual, innovative subject matter are listened to, promotes the organization’s innovative power and can be the impetus of all kinds of projects. As mentioned previously, knowledge and entrepreneurship are often closely linked.
  2. Especially within knowledge-based organizations, promoting internal thought leadership does strengthen the commitment and development of people with a certain expertise. They are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose as explained by Dan Pink in his well-known book ‘Drive’ (2009). They want to be recognized and treated like partners (rather than employees or subordinates).
  3. Supporting thought leaders in organizations creates marketing and competitive advantage as these people gain attention and attract followers. With their knowledge and ideas, they radiate competence and get access to interesting target groups, prospects, and circles internally and externally. Thought leaders act as brand ambassadors without the need to be exploited as such.
  4. Thought leaders are rather not conventional change agents who promote a meaning or desired attitude decreed by the executive level (notably in a moment of crisis). Supporting them, though, may modify the organizational culture along a process of adaptive change. Thus, innovation, expertise, and creative power gradually become the backbone of leadership and cooperation at eye level.
The Thought Leadership Program in Action

How do you promote internal thought leaders?

It’s crucial to restrict the dominance of people of positions and status.

Especially within corporations, publicity is more often than not reserved exclusively for functional authorities and all kinds of dignitaries. Thus, new formats are needed to build a bridge and a stage for those who should get attention with their knowledge and passion (e.g., social intranet platforms and collaboration tools, internal media, bar camps, ted talks etc.).

Furthermore, it’s indispensable to change the corporate culture. Those who publish and showcase their knowledge and ideas should be recognized and acknowledged. There’s no room for jealousy and resentment. However, the requirements should be clear: It’s all about contribution with substantial and innovative content. Any ego booster show is considered undesirable and even counterproductive.

Thought leaders who want to be acknowledged within organizations and the general public benefit from specific skills and technology. The effective use of social media and social enterprise technology, presentation skills, storytelling, and networking should be an integral part of their competency portfolio.

On top of this, they need opportunities and infrastructure to launch useful initiatives based on their knowledge and ideas. So some space and time off the daily routines should be provided. Any engagement and commitment of this kind should be rewarded and promoted.

Eventually, the organization needs role models establishing and exemplifying authority.

People like them demonstrate what thought leadership means and how this kind of authority is valued by and within the organization. These beacons are to be identified and promoted. The objective is to make others follow these examples and intensify the effect and impact internally and externally.

The Pain and Gain of Promoting Thought Leaders

There’s no such thing as a roadmap for the development of thought leaders. They can only develop themselves within the right environment where they find their audience and followers. That’s why culture, formats, and competencies are key. So keep in mind:

No one is a thought leader or authority but will be made one by fellows and followers.

This is contrary to claiming conventional leadership. The CEO of a multinational corporation, who would like to act as a thought leader (rather than an official superior) and to attract others, represents his/her thoughts and ideas at eye level with those who usually deal with this subject matter. This has to be internalized first.

Even if it’s not about abolishing hierarchies and functional authorities that are needed for reasons of compliance or to bypass management levels (for instance in situations of crisis): Those who would like to install, anchor, and develop thought leadership in an organization need to shift leadership and its terminology from vertical to horizontal. So be aware:

Thought leaders act on a level playing field with their followers. Superiors, on the contrary, dominate subordinates.

Leadership can be justified by one or the other. In contrast to functional managers with clear roles and responsibilities, thought leaders need plenty of support and organizational backing in order to lead at eye level. Organizations should provide both as they benefit from thought leadership.


Thought Leadership in Organizations: 4 Pillars

  • Originality and creative power are a must: Only by communicating new insight and occupying a relevant niche, you will be acknowledged. Only by sowing the seeds of hope to learn and to create something new, you will attract followers. Only by sticking to a subject matter, you will succeed in developing it and in retaining fellows and followers.
  • Substance matters: To be noticed, acknowledged, and recommended as an authority, you need to score high with superior knowledge embedded in its context and attached to a visible outcome. Storytelling built upon anecdotes and emotions is not enough.
  • Mission is key: In a noisy world of many voices, you need to truly dedicate yourself to your subject matter and your ideas when you want to be heard and listened to. Competing for attention, you will score high by skillfully tying your topic, personality, and mission.
  • Leadership is essential: You need the courage to think and move forward by supporting others and taking the initiative rather than just preaching. Working out loud circles (currently implemented by many German corporations) are a great platform to learn and to take courage. The objective is to create a movement with one’s subject matter in order to accomplish something new together with one’s fellows.


Horizontal Authority in Organizations: 4 Roadblocks

  • Position and Status: Thought leaders make a mark with a subject matter and take the lead with a contingency approach. This has to be endorsed, facilitated, and promoted.
  • Envy and Jealousy: In conventional organizations, people are kind of suspicious once they offer their ideas and expertise. Courage and action are indispensable, though, when dealing with questions about innovation.
  • Extroversion and Introversion:For extroverts the magic triad of publishing, speaking, and networking may be easier to juggle as for introverts. An organization with an authority culture, that would like to promote people with knowledge and ideas, needs to ensure that it does not produce a series of ego booster shows but rather that it provides media, channels, and formats appealing to introverts, too.
  • Liaison and Freedom: Thought leaders with a high visibility become a personal brand themselves and thus independent from job titles and corporate brands. This needs to be considered by preparing the ground for their loyalty but also by providing for the day when they do it their way. In this case an authority culture based organization will already have a bunch of other people with ideas to close this gap.

This article hast first been published by Handelsblatt Fachmedien,  changement! 2/2018, pp 16-20.

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