Academy for Chief Executives Blog Rotating Header Image

Thought Leadership or Thought Followership? by Phil Shipperlee

Phil Shipperlee

Phil Shipperlee

Is it real or is it just another bit of jargon or management speak? I think the answer is both and I have explored this below.

It is very important to be able to identify what is real in this context as true thought leadership is at the root of all the progress made by mankind since the dawn of time.

Being an old sceptic, terms such as thought leadership and, worst still, “futurist” typically leave me cold. This is because they come from the world of the business guru (defined by the great Peter Drucker as; a person who cannot spell charlatan). For me this is a great shame as true thought leadership is both a valuable asset to exploit in oneself and also a very useful resource to tap in others.

Perhaps one of the purest examples of a thought leader is Leonardo Davinci who amongst other things visualised and drew; the submarine, tank, helicopter, robot and aeroplane. He also provided notes which debated whether such things could be made to work and whether they would be practical in use. For me this poses a key question in the evaluation of what is real thought leadership and what is just thought followership. It could be argued that the submarine and the aeroplane could have been inspired by observing fish and birds and the helicopter could have sprung from watching a sycamore seed descend in a controlled spiral. The tank could have been based on drawings of some of the battle chariots used by the Romans and the Egyptians before them. The robot may just have been wishful thinking by a lazy man who did not like physical exercise.

For me, the example that I provide for the robot is the essence of thought leadership. Someone either needs to move away from something undesirable, towards something desirable or to bring about change. The energy to make it happen came from the motivational force generated by the desire to move or change. Regardless of the trigger for Leonardo’s thought process, the outputs were all new, original and different which for me is an acid test for true thought leadership.

Other words that need to be considered in the wider context of this subject include innovation and creativity. Probably the best speaker that I have ever seen in 17 years of attending monthly ACE meetings was Dr. David Hall the CEO of HFL Sport Science. He took what had been a government department and turned it into a vibrant profitable private company. In doing so, he carried the staff with them and helped them to make the transition from one culture to another very different culture.

If you would like to know more, take a look at HFL’s approach. You will see how David Hall has created an environment that encourages and rewards innovation and creativity from everyone in the business.

A further perspective on this comes from Edward De Bono and his life’s work on Lateral thinking. He has probably written around 100 books on the topic so take your pick. The reason for raising this subject here is that as with David Hall, Edward De Bono recognises that producing original thought requires a change of state, shunning the norms and established patterns which lead us to continually think the same thing in the same way.

A common theme with the three people mentioned is the ability to imagine a distant future and then to work backwards to now as a means of planning the journey. It is not thought leadership to visualise the next three stepping stones all of which can be seen from your current vantage point. You need to imagine that which cannot be seen and then decide whether it would be a valuable and desirable thing to attain.

Many business leaders, especially those in SMEs, have a problem in separating themselves from working IN the business so they can work ON the business. This is all about priorities and time where getting the next deal or sorting out an unhappy bank manager will always push in front of spending time visualising what the future should look like and then how to make it become the new reality. If leaders do not do this, they are in fact not leaders as they are themselves being led by events which have their origins in the past.

The importance in terms of the future health of any business cannot be overstated. I do not remember who said it but there is no greater truth than; “if you want to know the future … create it”. And to do that you need; time, space, intention, energy and the absolute commitment that you will not let everyday interruptions get in your way.

My tips:

  • Choose your own term; thought leadership, innovation, creativity, … and then associate it with the core behaviours expected of everyone who works in the business.
  • Ensure you get genuine mind share from the whole business – “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers” their negative energy will just grind you down.
  • Create the environment where controlled risk taking and innovation are encouraged. Trying and failing will not be punished but failing to try might be.
  • Allocate the time and resources to ensure thought leadership is encouraged across the business and that everyone feels they should be spending time on this. The 3M Postit note was, I believe, a product of staff who were encouraged to spend work time thinking about solving non-work problems.
  • Associate with people outside the organisation who support and encourage your approach – ACE is a great place for this.
  • Use the approach as a key differentiator helping you to gain new customers and new business outside your normal scope.
  • Use the approach to attract the best and brightest people to work for and with you.
  • Phil Shipperlee has a lifelong passion for business and professional selling. These two passions were combined nine years ago when he and his partners formed Performative plc with the specific purpose of Improving Business Performance through a unique process of Sales Performance Transformation. Performative also helps businesses with the management issues of Mergers and Acquisition (M&A) To find out more visit
    Entrepreneurs will be necessary for economic growth in 2010 and beyond as Government and Business emerge from recession. Experts in this area, like Phil, will be in demand. At the Academy for Chief Executives (ACE), the leading provider of experiential business learning, leaders are also provided with an outlet for any feeling of isolation and uncertainty by building a community of like-minded individuals around them. For more visit

    Leave a Reply