thought leadership books

3 Reasons Academic Research is a Thought Leader’s Secret Weapon

So you want to become a thought leader. Your brain’s awash in visions of viral LinkedIn blog posts and Medium essays; you dream of a column in Forbes and a Sheryl Sandberg-esque book deal down the road. The last thing you’re thinking about is… school. In fact, the halls of academia seem like another planet compared to what you’re trying to achieve for your startup or corporation.

Believe it or not, though, thought leaders who really want to build a name for themselves on the strength of their ideas should be turning to academia on the regular. (And by academia, we mean anything from using solid academic research to build your argument to teaming up with an academic consultant.) It’s not just that academics know a thing or two about a thing or two. It’s that their knowledge can be a huge asset for your brand, if you tap into it. Here’s why.

1. Academic input adds complexity to your thought leadership

Thought leadership may be popular these days, but the genre also gets a bad rap for being, well, basic. In his book The Ideas Industry, political scientist Daniel W. Drezner tears into the public figure of the thought leader, noting that many of thought leadership’s biggest names make millions from selling glib, simplistic ideas that merely prop up the super-rich. Ouch.

To be fair, thought leadership is tough, and there are only so many times you can list the “five best traits of an entrepreneur” before the whole thing does start sounding like an echo chamber. This is why looping in academic research or an academic consultant can deepen and strengthen your argument, giving it complexity and nuance. An academic can not only spot angles you might be missing, but they’re well-versed at drawing in parallels and arguments from other fields, like history, sociology, or psychology. Just look at this piece we placed in Fast Company, Why Startups Need More People Over 50.” With a title like that, it could have easily been a simplistic screed against ageism, but academic research sprinkled throughout turned it into a thoughtful piece with teeth.

2. There’s no subject academics can’t tackle

Universities are all well and good, you might be thinking, but there’s no way academia has anything to say about your wearable fitness device startup or your business that makes eco-friendly reusable coffee filters. They’re just too different. Right?

Allow us to point you toward the huge and venerable field of academics who study… Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The truth of the matter is that academia can tackle anything, whether it’s digging up psychology research that proves people are more likely to exercise when social pressure is involved (an argument for linking your fitness device to Facebook, perhaps?) or explaining why eating the occasional sugary snack might make you a better entrepreneur.

You don’t have to find an academic who studies your product exactly, but think broad and you’ll find a field that can help your argument, whether it’s sociological, scientific, cultural, or something else altogether.

3. Academia yields more great mainstream ideas than you think

Disruptive innovation is probably a concept you’ve heard a million times already. Everyone in Silicon Valley seems to be buying into the idea, and there are already a zillion thought leadership articles on how to disrupt, why to disrupt, and when to disrupt. But did you know that the entire idea of disruption actually came from an academic? Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen put forth the theory in 1997. Despite facing some weighty criticism, it’s remained influential in business circles to this day.

Though we usually think of academia as an ivory tower, insights from disciplines like history, philosophy, and psychology regularly cross over into the “real world,” so to speak. In the workplace, these spillovers can influence everything from management strategies to meeting lengths to the sudden popularity of treadmill desks. Believe it or not, having strong connections with academia might help you spot the next big trend in the business world, before everyone else does.
Want to learn how Hippo’s academic network can supercharge your thought leadership? Get in touch.

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