If you are a BBC fan, you have almost certainly come across the Great British Bake-Off. Over about ten years, it has become almost essential viewing for budding cooks. And certainly a popular subject for coffee point discussion. Less well known, but similarly interesting, are the Sky Arts Artist of the Year series. Portrait Artist of the Year is currently airing on Sky Arts, and the new series of Landscape Artist of the Year will be available for streaming later in January. 

What exactly is so fascinating about these series? It’s partly the ‘journey’ taken by the contestants across the series. Human reactions are always interesting, after all. However, there’s more to it than that. There is also value in watching experts at work, and getting an insight into how different experts tackle the same challenge. It’s also fascinating to see how an individual’s approach changes with different problems or situations. 

Why? Because it gives us an insight into how to solve our own problems, and shows us new ways to tackle issues. These shows demonstrate the importance of building expertise, and how they can make a big difference in art, baking and elsewhere.

Expertise and thought leadership

You may be wondering what this has to do with thought leadership. The answer is that these shows highlight the difference between what we might describe as practitioner expertise, expressed in content form by sharing experience or expertise, and thought leadership. 

There is general agreement, and has been for some time, that thought leaders are seen as the ‘go-to’ experts on their particular subject or in their field. We have also previously suggested that they are the people considered best able to understand and predict major trends, and add value to their audience by doing so. It therefore follows that you cannot be self-defined as a thought leader. This is a title that has to be earned over time, and bestowed upon you by others. Thought leaders are definitely experts, however, and have often been so for many years.

Joel Kurtzman’s original definition of thought leadership, however, also includes having original ideas and perspectives, and new insights. This often means being able to gain clients’ trust rapidly, and influence them to think in different ways to drive stakeholder value – e.g. revenue, profit or market share growth.

Thought leadership is therefore very much not simply sharing your expertise and knowledge, targeting similar practitioners who would appreciate these insights. Instead, it is a very deliberate attempt to introduce new ideas to build a strong connection with the market. This is not the same as being an expert and sharing your expertise. However, not every engagement needs thought leadership. Sometimes practical experience, and the willingness to share, are more relevant.

Practitioner vs. thought leader

It’s worth introducing another term here: practitioner. This term is almost as ubiquitous as thought leadership, but has somehow escaped any accusations of being jargon. We use the term for a huge range of people: doctors, nurses, lawyers, carpenters, artists and even data scientists. What we mean is a professional who deals with a particular subject every day, and in practical terms. The word is rooted in practice, and that practical experience is crucial.

As the Artist of the Year series show us, practice gives you insights that cannot be gained simply by reading about something. You can only truly build competence and confidence by doing it, hence the saying about ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’ before commenting on their life. Not all practitioners are experts, not least because you must practice something for a considerable time before becoming truly good at it. However, even those new to an area may have some insights to provide from their experience. 

You can also gain insights from someone else’s practical experience when it is shared—and these may also be new insights. After all, your previous practical experience is different from theirs, and how you apply your knowledge will also vary. What really matters here is that sharing experience can lead to conversations, and build relationships and connections. 

Sharing practical experience is not the same as thought leadership. However, there is room for both. There is huge value in sharing experience, because it sparks conversations that can drive new insights, build new connections, and develop knowledge and expertise. Not every idea beyond a product description should be labelled ‘thought leadership’.