In the technology industry, we use the term thought leader far too loosely. This mistake is not just semantic, since technology vendors want to use thought leadership to achieve business results.

Big vendors like IBM, SAP, and Microsoft want you to believe that they are thought leaders, in spite of their size and age. Yes, we may bestride the world like a colossus, but, when need be, we can pick up our feet and run in the direction that the market is headed. Small vendors have the opposite problem. Sure, they may be nimble, and they may have Big New Ideas that anticipate the future of their markets. But can you rely on them to execute? And no matter how good your ideas might be, how do you get anyone to pay attention to them if no one has heard of you before?

If you're not convincing, you're not a thought leader. Therefore, thought leadership must be superior to the unconvincing claims that appear on vendor Web sites, where practically everyone claims to be the leading company in blahblahblah. (If everyone's a leader, then who are the followers?) Inserting the word thought into these elevator pitches doesn't convert them into magical words of power.

Hermits living in caves may have spectacular ideas, but no one hears them. Thought leadership, therefore, must have some tangible consequences. You might claim that you're a thought leader if a lot of people listen to you, but that's a very misleading measure of your effect on the world. If, for example, you're a self-anointed expert in social CRM, you might delight in getting tens of thousands of Twitter followers. How many of them have real decision-making power over CRM projects? Decision-makers do not necessarily follow the advice of everyone they find interesting, which is another reason to be suspicious of audience size as a measure of thought leadership.

Thought leadership may be as simple as the maxim, "Nothing succeeds like success." Thought leadership requires converting your expertise in a particular market, business problem, or technology into business success. A thought leader in ERP may reach only a few hundred CIOs. However, if those CIOs are willing to pay for the thought leader's products, services, or advice, that's a more successful business model than the social CRM expert who speaks to orders-of-magnitude more people who pay nothing.

[Coming soon, a follow-up post on thought leadership and the innovation process.]