energy saving lightbulb among a bunch of old-fashioned lightbulbsWho is a Thought Leader?

The term thought leader is bandied about quite a bit these days (including here).

But who is a thought leader? What do they look like, and what are their qualities?


Is a true thought leader a charismatic and forward thinking individual, like the late Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk?

You might think that true thought leadership requires a figurehead, one person who can build a reputation for challenging the status quo and thinking outside the box. But what happens when that one individual leaves?


On the other hand, you might think organizations or teams, like IBM or Google, make better thought leaders. Surely a team of brilliant people putting their heads together will come up with something more innovative than one person working alone…

Then again, working in a team might dampen the creative process, bringing innovation down to a safe level, where everyone feels comfortable—the lowest common denominator.

Individual or Organization?

Our view here at WP Engine is that thought leadership does not need to be done by an individual—it can be led by a small team of innovators that lead the organization.

In fact,  we think that thought leadership can be even better when led by a small team, rather than by any one individual.

Qualities of a Thought Leader

Below we’ve listed a range of qualities that have been attributed to thought leaders, and assessed whether they can be held by individuals, a team, or both.

  • True innovator – Both, but a team can spur each other on, building on and expanding creative ideas through their collaboration.
  • Takes risks – Both, but it can be harder for a team to agree on risk taking.
  • Do the unconventional – Both, but it’s easier for an individual to non-conform than for an organization, especially one that has to be accountable to shareholders, investors, and other external parties.
  • Expertise – Both. But an organization can amass a greater amount of expertise than one individual.
  • Vision – Both. Individuals can have strong visions, and if they are good communicators, share that vision with others. However, a shared vision is bigger than one individual, and more powerful.
  • Leadership – Both. Individuals can lead, but a team of strong leaders with a shared vision can provide stronger leadership.
  • Insatiable curiosity – Both, but it takes effort to cultivate this quality at an organizational level.
  • Fearless – Both, again probably easier for an individual than a team. The more people in the room, the more fears to overcome.
  • New thinking = new growth – Both, but a team could do this better. By bringing together a diverse group of brilliant people, new ideas can be formed through cross-pollination.
  • Empathy – Individual. It’s difficult for an organization to be truly empathetic (although they do try, e.g. through buyer personas).
  • Develop the best people only – Both. But it’s easier to find and attract the best people when you are a team of brilliant people, as opposed to a lone ranger.
  • Love what they do – Both. Most (all?) of us at WP Engine love what we do, and we believe that the power of our collective love is greater than any one individual.

What Does a Team Have That an Individual Doesn’t?

Teams of thought leaders have an advantage over individuals in many areas. Brilliant thinkers can spur each other on, and cross-pollinate ideas, to come up with brand new ideas and combinations.

Shared visions are more powerful than individual visions. Similarly, a shared passion for what you do can be more powerful than an individual love for work. It can also be easier to be courageous and take risks when you are doing it with others, rather than alone.

But a team has to work hard is to rise above the lowest common denominator when evaluating risk, or cultivating fearlessness. It can be harder for a team to break the mold and not conform.

AppPresser – An Example

Let’s think about the example of AppPresser, an innovation from our friends at WebDev Studios. AppPresser allows you to create a real mobile app from the ground up, using native device hardware like the camera, using only WordPress.

AppPresser is a great example of thought leadership in the WordPress community. I asked Brad Williams how the idea came about, and he confirmed that it was a team effort:

When we started we had a very high-level idea of what we wanted to do, but no clue how to get there.

So the leadership team worked through the initial plan and then the dev team started working on a proof of concept.

We weren’t even sure it would work initially…And then one day it worked.

Figure showing how AppPresser works

How We See Thought Leadership

We believe the best way to execute thought leadership is to have a small team of brilliant, innovative thought leaders who lead their own verticals, but don’t work in silos. These thought leaders set the example for their vertical teams to follow and be inspired by, but they all feed back into the core concept.

The core concept is the values and ideal of the company—the tip of the spear, if you will.

Overall, we think that by leveraging off/challenging each other, a team of thought leaders is better, more powerful, and more sustainable, than an individual figurehead.

Back to our headline. It takes a team of thought leaders to change a lightbulb.

But we’re not talking about simply replacing the same type of bulb.

We’re talking about coming up with a new type of lightbulb. Or installing a system of smart lightbulbs that talk to each other. Or doing away with lightbulbs all together, and coming up with a new source of artificial light.

It’s the team that makes it possible to come up with innovations that go way beyond what was presented in the first place.

Do you agree that teams make better thought leaders?