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Thought Leadership and Sales

In his new book To Sell Is Human, author Daniel Pink argues that sales was, not so long ago, based on “information asymmetry.”

Cars for sale (…) fall into two categories: good and bad.  Bad cars, what Americans call “lemons,” are obviously less desirable and therefore ought to be cheaper.  Trouble is, with used cars, only the seller knows whether the vehicle is a lemon or a peach.  The two parties confront “an asymmetry in available information.”  One side is fully informed; the other is at least partially in the dark.

thought leaderThis led to our traditional idea of what a sales person is  – a slick purveyor of hairbrushes and tin siding. In contrast, modern sales is more about attunement and empathy. We know that buyers have access to information – and in fact, we can do well to provide them with that information. In the process, we position ourselves as “thought leaders.”

This is the leading marketing tactic of my own company.  I’ve written two books, and pretty much spend about half of my time writing blog posts for blogs other than my own company’s, and am a frequent speaker at various events.  I like to think that I’ve created the perfect job for myself, as it entails learning, and then sharing that learning with others.

As I look around, I see my peers equally engaged in this approach. It makes for a great environment, where so many of us are full-throttle sharing information.  Even marketers that might be considered competitors often share valuable knowledge with one another.

There are a lot more that while they use knowledge sharing as a marketing tactic, bring it to another place. For instance, I received a message the other day from one marketer that if I signed up, he’d give me a FREE COPY of HIS NEW EBOOK!!!

True, the marketer is practicing generosity. In a way.  He’s also being like Don Juan saying, “come with me maiden, and I will bestow the gift of my manhood upon you.” It’s a questionable gift.

Some people use the whole thought leadership approach in a way where the old-school sales approach is lying just below the surface.  It’s obvious why they want me to read their eBook, or attend their webinar, or read their blog post.

It’s long been understood that when given gifts, people feel what is often a disproportionate obligation to reciprocate.  Marketers know this quite well, and often use it to great effect.  Think of all those address labels you used to get with the Easter Seals solicitation.

But when the connection between the gift and the notion that the giver is looking for something in return is obvious, it can lose its power.  So what is a marketer to do? How can someone wanting to practice the thought leadership way of marketing avoid coming across like an old-school sales person?

I believe the answer lies in motivation.  If your motivation is to act for something in return, that underlying sentiment will somehow be communicated. Instead, you really must turn your back – at least partially – on the notion that you’re sharing information for any reason other than paying it forward. It means having faith in the notion that if you give unreservedly, others will find it valuable and business will come your way.

Weigh in on the debate: is thought leadership ever altruistic? Or a thinly veiled disguise to market oneself?

Post by Featured Sensei Blogger Ric Dragon


Join the Conversation

Derby 5pts

Some informative things are provided here,I really happy to read this post,I was just imagine about it and you provided me the correct information I really bookmark it,for further reading,So thanks for sharing the information.

danavan 5pts

Hey Ric - Your question about 'altruistic' thought leadership really resonated with me. Back in 2006, I started using the phrase 'altruism before capitalism' in my workshops and it really resonated with people as I tried to explain the concept of thought leadership.  I see a lot of parallels between what you're brought up here and the concept of 'Start With Why' concept that Simon Sinek speaks about. In my experience, all great thought leadership is generated from a deeper sense of purpose, obligation and an unshakable "Why" that fuels the individual or organization's interest in the industry or subject that they're writing about.  Further, when we get the question about 'competing against other thought leaders' from an organization pursuing thought leadership, I feel that the simple answer is that everyone is going to attract a unique tribe of 'followers' based on their genuine 'why' behind their thought leadership.  I go back to a few of the criteria for thought leaders that Rain Today laid out in a report several years ago.  Two of their criteria were that they 1) love what they do and 2) have the desire to teach.  I would add to that they they 3) have an unshakable and easy-to-explain 'why' behind their thought leadership.  Those three factors alone, at least from my perspective, separate the real thought leaders from the marketers out there simply employing buzzwords.  I think that the market can really quite easily see through the latter and will know the former when they see it and respond accordingly.  Which begs the question, why would anyone do anything but genuine thought leadership with quasi-altruistic motivations. Thanks for a great post and inspiring the dialogue!

snouraini 5pts

Beautifully said Ric!  May I add that thought leadership isn't only about sharing information, but inspiring change and motivating others, which is the "leadership" part of the equation that many marketers miss.  Those who share information for the sole purpose of getting something back, aren't practicing leadership!

CraigBadings 5pts

Agree Ric, people are increasingly looking for authenticity in their brand relationships and expertise.  Thought leadership is a great way of showcasing this.

Yes both books are on thought leadership, as you can tell it's a real passion of mine.  If you do read one and have any questions let me know, happy to answer/debate further where I can.  

CraigBadings 5pts

Ric great debate.  In the ideal world and with an abundance mentality which should go hand in hand with thought leadership one could say yes you're right.  But whenever when commerce is involved is something for nothing.

The very premise of thought leadership in a brand context is to position yourself as an expert ultimately resulting in people recognising you as such thereby establishing trust in your expertise so that you can sell your service or product to them.  Aftere 23 years in the PR and thought leadership business I have yet to see otherwise. 

In a world where return on investment is everything I don't believe any marketing manager, CEO or knowledge manager can pretend their thought leadership is for purely altruistic purposes.  What's more the market is too sophisticated anyway not to recognise it as such.

chieflemonhead 5pts

Thanks for sharing, Ric! You know I'm a big fan.


Some of the philosophy you are referring to reminds me of the concept of "abundance" which the late Stephen Covey mentioned in his last book: The 8th Principle. The idea that the majority of people - not just marketers - feel the world is in a stage of scarcity. In this phase, people get greedy; they are looking for the biggest "piece" of the pie for themselves and they want to take everything they need before anyone gets anything for themselves. This counts for marketers, for businesses, for governments, etc. This means that when it comes to elements like "thought leadership", the belief in scarcity would suggest that I will only share my thought leadership IF you give me something first. Some people will buy into this, once... but not for long. This is not sustainable in the long run, and the current world economy is proving that a scarcity mindset does not work!


On the flipside, the belief in abundance suggests that there is enough pie to go around. This isn't a statement in fact: whether there is enough for everyone or not isn't the point. The point is you need to believe it, and act like it. We often are told, as individuals seeking happiness: "If money was no object, if you could not fail, what would you do?" If you approach business and sharing of thought leadership in this way, the reality is that more people are drawn to you; more people believe in you; and, over time, more people learn to trust you. We know that "trust" for a business can often turn into a transaction; and continued trust in this business post transaction can lead to loyalty and advocacy.


It is my humble opinion that we need to find the best ways to showcase the value of the abundance theory, again for the sustainability of the business beyond this month's "numbers". (You're welcome Wall Street!)


Thanks for the conversation, Ric!




samfiorella moderator 5pts

Great discussion to have Ric.  The reality is most marketers are maligned for their insincerity, and in many cases justifiably so. Let's be honest, as marketers it's our job to sell our client's or our company's products, not to be nice to people.


Those of us who know how to use thought leadership the best (in other words, make it appear the most sincere) win.  But really, who cares? Provided the thought leadership gives  real value to the end-customer, do they really care if it's an attempt to build a relationship and eventually sell them something? Customers have the choice to accept the information and decide if they want to purchase a product from the "thought leader" or not.

jeanniecw 5pts

Ric, great post and I agree! Paying it forward SHOULD pay off, but it takes a while. I think it's easy to think if we practice perceived generosity, people will love us! Thought leadership can be very effective, but it has to actually have value. Too often, I'm seeing thought leaders of the past relying on old information, old content, and old techniques - they are not moving ahead with the times. While it was generous in its day, what they are offering today is not keeping up. In a strange way, by not keeping up and evolving, this type of thought leadership quickly depreciates in value and becomes a disservice to those who receive it. So I would impress upon those considering this approach to commit to it! It takes time, and getting lazy doesn't serve anyone.


  1. […] for fun, here’s a link to an enjoyable discussion about thought leadership and sales around ideas from Daniel Pink’s new book “To Sell Is […]

  2. […] "Weigh in on the debate: is thought leadership ever altruistic? Or a thinly veiled disguise to market oneself?"  […]

  3. […] "Weigh in on the debate: is thought leadership ever altruistic? Or a thinly veiled disguise to market oneself?"  […]

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  5. […] "Weigh in on the debate: is thought leadership ever altruistic? Or a thinly veiled disguise to market oneself?"  […]

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