Oracle’s Ellison defines thought leadership. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Thought leaders have thoughts.  It’s this predictive, engaging and often provoking insight that is the foundation of a successful content marketing program.

That’s straightforward, right?

So, why is it such a challenge for executives at many organizations to articulate a unique opinion?

The equally straightforward answer is a single word: risk.

Risk in thought leadership is typically served in two flavors.  The first is the daunting prospect of disagreement from respected voices in the industry, which could include customers, analysts, bloggers and other influencers.

People shy from conflict and disagreement – in life and in business.

The second brand of risk in thought leadership is the prospect of ultimately being proven wrong.  A projection that falls short or flames out could sabotage executive credibility…or so the thinking goes.

Stand tall, I say, and embrace the hazards associated with thought leadership.  Oracle’s Larry Ellison has braved this path time and time again.

Remember his bold claims nearly two decades ago about push technology?  Ellison projected this emerging capability as the future of his company’s software development strategy.

Salesforce’s Marc Benioff is the most recent executive to pivot from a once steadfast prediction.   At Dreamforce 2011, he hailed the rise of the “social enterprise” and self-anointed his company as uniquely qualified to help an organization realize its potential.

Salesforce’s Benioff missed with the social enterprise. (Photo source: BusinessInsider.com)

“Our social enterprise vision fundamentally changes how companies collaborate, share and manage information,” Benioff proclaimed in a company announcement. “By creating social customer profiles, employee social networks, customer social networks and product social networks, companies can delight their customers in entirely new ways.”

Jump forward to late 2013 and Benioff acknowledged to investors the “social enterprise” never quite took hold.

Salesforce reps took the social enterprise mantra to customers, but couldn’t find the buyers, he said.  Benioff also admitted that his own company didn’t exactly understand what it meant.

Although the size, strength and success of Oracle and Salesforce shield Ellison and Benioff from the full brunt of flawed thinking, it’s also their willingness to recognize the misstep and change course that preserves their reputation as visionaries.

That flexibility is something any credible executive can emulate.

And, of course, Benioff has jump started conversations among technology buyers with his latest projection:  “Internet of Customers.”

Behold the beauty of thought leadership.