Thought Leaders vs Influencers

A lot of people are claiming to be thought leaders these days. In the rise of the influencer and attention economy are they the same, or different.

The rise of the influencers

I was chatting with a client CRO from a large US company and mentioned that I write the occasional piece for Chief Auditors and Chief Risk Officers. Their response was:

Oh no, I don’t want another influencer in my feed. I get nothing from them. What I need is really well thought out, actionable content.

They made a distinction between thought leaders who make a big contribution and the influencers who have crowded them out. 

Thought Leaders vs Influencers

It’s useful to distinguish the two with a bit more precision. 

Thought leaders

A thought leader generates novel content, often from a first principles perspective or drawing new insights or models to help people think through big ideas and challenges. 

According to Forbes, they are relevant, passionate, curious, insightful, novel, and topical in their work. They are authentic and empowering in how they communicate and are recognised and respected by their peers and the leaders in their field.

They have a unique point of view and high conviction. They share generously without denigrating the work of others (which can be a sign that the author’s ideas aren’t strong enough to stand on their own – or worse – there isn’t enough brain plasticity or broad enough experience to apply or mesh with the work of others).

Thought Leaders provide actionable frameworks, inflections and new ideas on how to make things better. They’ll publish when they’ve got something to say. Otherwise they’re pretty quiet if they’re not on a media deadline.

They’re generous with sharing, driven by impact and not by likes an clicks.

They generate content that other thought leaders respect and reshare and contribute to industry standards and frameworks. People seek out their opinions and advice. They are probably advisors or mentors to many and at the pointy end of things. They’re citable. Possibly, their ideas are adopted into standards and frameworks without ever realising where the ideas came from in the first place.

For genuine thought leaders, it’s take-up of the ideas that is the genuine reward, even if… or particularly if there is no recognition of their contribution. It’s seeing the impact of their work over longer time scales.

This is an incredibly high bar and one that is hard to maintain consistently. It’s an honour to be recognised and not something you can claim for yourself.

But this is the main game for genuine thought leaders and the space we try and play in (apart from notable publishing gaps of 6 months or more when we’re deep in the work with our clients).


Influencers have nice marketing, and good follower growth on socials. But often this is just a regurgitation of other people’s ideas (often without attribution) in a way that gives people cheap dopamine hits when bored on socials. It’s shiny, high frequency and crowds out the good stuff. 

Another influencer strategy is to find clickable content from others to like and reshare to keep their profile in your feed – every single day, crowding out your genuine connections.

Sure, this content is fun if you are scrolling for a cheap dopamine hit, but if you’re not actioning the content this probably isn’t serving you.

And its probably crowding out the good stuff.

Getting the balance right

Your attention is a valuable resource – so choose wisely.

My tests for who to follow and connect with are whether they enrich my work in a way that is worthy of paying attention to and prioritising. 

I’ll give others a try for a week or two, but if they’re crowding out my feed I’ll opt out shortly after. 

So if you’re going to call yourself a thought leader or aspire to be one, make sure your work is backed by substance and not just seeking attention or social stats. This Forbes Article is a good guide.

And if you’re looking for people to follow it’s good to be clear on the difference between the two. Influencers thrive off quick dopamine hits. Thought leaders genuinely help you think better.

Sure, give influencers a try, but if it’s not enriching your life and practice and crowding out what’s genuinely important, then hit the unsubscribe or unfollow button so it’s not crowding out your feed from what’s genuinely important.

Todd Davies

Todd Davies has been recognised as one of the top 10 global thought leaders in Internal Audit of the year, and of the decade by the number 1 thought leader globally (Richard Chambers).

He has been recognised as a top 20 global exemplar by the Directors and Chief Risk Officers Institute and has contributed extensively to professional bodies, regulators and standard setters in Australia and internationally.

He was formerly KPMG’s global head of product development for internal audit and has spent the last 15 years working with Chief Risk Officers, Chief Auditors, boards, committees and the c-suite to master their craft.

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