A thought leader can refer to an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first citation for the phrase an 1887 description of Henry Ward Beecher as "one of the great thought-leaders in America." But it was revived or reinvented by marketers in the 1980s; in a 1990 article in the Wall Street Journal Marketing section, Patrick Reilly used the term "thought leader publications" to refer to such magazines as Harper's.

The term is sometimes used to characterize leaders of service clubs, officers of veterans' organizations, of civic organizations, of women's clubs, lodges, regional officials and insurance executives.

Thought leadership is often used as a way of increasing or creating demand for a product or service. High tech firms often publish white papers with analyses of the economic benefits of their products as a form of marketing. These are distinct from technical white papers. Consulting firms frequently publish house reports, e.g. The McKinsey Quarterly, A.T. Kearney Executive Agenda, Booz & Co Strategy and Business (now being acquired by PriceWaterhouseCoopers), or Deloitte Review where they publish the results of research, new management models and examples of the use of consulting methodologies.

A on the term was published in 2016 of Chris Kelly on Canadian television's This is That program. In the process of the discussion, imitating TED talks, Kelly elicits responses from the audience that exemplify the effect he describes as the result of applying well-known marketing techniques to achieve the impression of being an erudite speaker.

Criticism of the phrase and concept

The phrase "thought leader" is identified by some business writers as an annoying example of business jargon, and appeared in Forbes magazine's 2013 annual "tournament" of "corporate America’s most insufferable" business buzzwords and clichés. Dr. Kevin Money and Nuno Da Camara of the John Madejski Centre for Reputation at the University of Reading's Henley Management College write that the nebulous nature of the phrase (the unclear nature of "what is and what is not thought leadership") contributes to its reputation among cynics as "meaningless management speak." Some writers, such as Harvard Business Review contributor Dorie Clark, have defended the phrase, while agreeing "that it is very icky when people call themselves thought leaders because that sounds a little bit egomaniacal."

New York Times columnist David Brooks mocked the lifecycle of the role in a satirical column entitled "The Thought Leader," published in December 2013.