The tensions of defining and developing thought leadership within knowledge-intensive firms

William S. Harvey*, Vince-Wayne Mitchell, Alessandra Almeida Jones, Eric Knight

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Purpose: A major part of knowledge management for knowledge-intensive firms such as professional service firms is the increasing focus on thought leadership. Despite being a well-known term, it is poorly defined and analysed in the academic and practitioner literature. The aim of this article is to answer three questions. First, what is thought leadership? Second, what tensions exist when seeking to create thought leadership in knowledge-based organisations? Third, what further research is needed about thought leadership? The authors call for cross-disciplinary and academic–practitioner approaches to understanding the field of thought leadership.

Design/methodology/approach: The authors review the academic and practitioner literature on thought leadership to provide a rich oversight of how it is defined and can be understood by separating inputs, creation processes and outcomes. The authors also draw on qualitative data from 12 in-depth interviews with senior leaders of professional service firms.

Findings: Through analysing and building on previous understandings of the concept, the authors redefine thought leadership as follows: “Knowledge from a trusted, eminent and authoritative source that is actionable and provides valuable solutions for stakeholders”. The authors find and explore nine tensions that developing thought leadership creates and propose a framework for understanding how to engage with thought leadership at the industry/macro, organisational/meso and individual/micro levels. The authors propose a research agenda based on testing propositions derived from new theories to explain thought leadership, including leadership, reducing risk, signalling quality and managing social networks, as well as examining the suggested ways to resolve different tensions.

Originality/value: To the best of the authors’ knowledge, they are the first to separate out thought leadership from its inputs, creation processes and outcomes. The authors show new organisational paradoxes within thought leadership and show how they can play out at different levels of analysis when implementing a thought leadership strategy. This work on thought leadership is set in a relatively under-explored context for knowledge management researchers, namely, knowledge-intensive professional service firms.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages33
JournalJournal of Knowledge Management
Early online date11 Jan 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 11 Jan 2021


  • Definitions
  • Expert knowledge
  • Knowledge-intensive firms
  • Professional service firms
  • Tensions
  • Thought leadership

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