If you’re in higher ed communication, chances are someone wants your help to become a “thought leader.”

Usually they just want some PR.

A couple speaking engagements, a well-placed opinion column and a few interviews are thought leadership tactics, but they don’t make a thought leader.

Thought leadership happens when a clearly articulated purpose drives a compelling vision of the future and people fervently believe in both.

Take the late Steve Jobs. Jobs’ purpose was to simplify computing and make it accessible. In 2007, he envisioned the world going mobile with the introduction of the iPhone, and he had legions of employees, investors and customers who believed he could do it.

In higher ed, consider Ben Nelson, the founder of Minerva Schools. His purpose is to improve the delivery of higher education. He sees a future that blends residential learning with tech-driven access to the highest quality learning at a much lower cost. Do people believe? Minerva gets 20,000 applications a year and is more selective than Harvard.

Thought leaders make it happen by challenging the status quo. They’ve got the guts to proclaim new ways of doing things, thick skins to take criticism and the willingness to take responsibility.Click To Tweet

When you get the request for “thought leadership,” does it come from a person like this? Someone driven to boldly change the world (or an industry, institution or department) with a platform built on purpose, vision and belief?

Or is it a request for more, better PR?

Higher ed, under siege by high costs, disruptive technology and questions about value, is ripe for true thought leadership that drives change. Who in academe is taking up the mantle?

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