How can we have thought leadership without thought leaders? That’s the question embedded in recent research published by BlissPR that looks at thought leadership trends in the professional services industry. It seems to me they have uncovered some challenging dilemmas for this industry — and all other industries engaged in a high stakes sale — to consider and address.

Having studied 46 management consulting firms, the researchers found that nearly all have “content rich” Web sites. That wasn’t a surprise. Consultants, as they note, are “intuitively skilled at developing and articulating trends and insights to their clients.”

The surprise was that nearly 30% of the companies failed to clearly identify any thought leaders — the individuals who articulate those trends and insights. It’s as if they are hidden behind a veil.

Of those firms that cited their thought leaders, little effort was made to promote these individuals as authorities in their field. Typically, their biographies were the only added information provided. Only 19% provided links to the thought leader’s body of work such as bylined articles or conference presentations. One notable exception: CRA International.

So why would this be?

To some extent, it’s just a matter of recognizing best practice in the field. This study, I imagine, helps rectify the problem it identifies by shining a light on it.

But I wonder whether this reveals a tension that exists in all businesses. It’s the conflict between stars and systems.

When companies actively promote individuals and turn them into stars, they become somewhat vulnerable. What if that individual leaves? What if that individual must be let go? Hewlett Packard had to deal with this issue when it ousted Carly Fiorina. She had become the IT industry equivalent of Martha Stewart. So who’s the present CEO of HP? I’ll bet you can’t name him — and that’s my point.

In most industries, smart companies recognize they can’t become overly tied to stars. They must build brands — and systems — that scale.

In the terrific book The Blind Side, Michael Lewis talks about how San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh popularized the “West Coast Offense.” The whole point of the approach was to introduce a new system that would transcend the individual stars that were part of it. It worked: Both quarterback Joe Montana and his successor, Steve Young were immensely successful with the approach.

Which isn’t to say that stars don’t matter. Few would argue that that the West Coast Offense would have worked with just about anyone. Both Montana and Young were immensely gifted athletes.

I would argue that management consulting firms — and by extension, most firms that offer complex B2B solutions — must have both stars and systems.

They cannot build scalable and successful businesses unless they establish trustworthy brands and introduce systems that make individual contributors less critical to the success of the enterprise. Should any particular thought leader become “indispensable,” the firm’s long run potential will be depleted. It won’t survive and thrive over time.

But such firms cannot truly build trust and credibility either unless they demystify themselves and show who’s behind the veil. The McKinsey Mystique may have worked for McKinsey very well in the past, but today’s clients increasingly want to know who they will be working with and what caliber of thinking those people bring to the party. (Even McKinsey is now actively establishing new “outposts” on the social media frontier that — I would argue — will progressively require it to more actively promote its individual thought leaders and give them a distinct voice.)

These days, trust and credibility are built through the sharing of ideas and insights. But it’s hard to trust someone you don’t know. It’s hard to get attached to a brand alone when it’s actually people — live, flesh and blood — that will determine whether your high stakes project is a success or failure. While I am not arguing that companies “throw open their kimonos,” I am arguing that greater transparency matters. The veil must be lifted.

So the question becomes: How does one smartly promote both thought leadership and thought leaders? Answer: It’s a balancing act.

Professional services companies (like all companies that offer high stakes, high impact solutions) have to both produce thought leadership and promote their thought leaders if they are to stay in the game — and ultimately win.

They achieve balance by balancing their portfolio of thought leaders.
They cultivate an array of thought leaders and insightful individuals, not merely one or two stars. They build a content factory that actively and efficiently produces and packages compelling perspectives and promotes the thought leaders behind them.  They encourage — and incentivize — their people to more actively communicate their insights and perspectives.

This may prove to be a problem for some executives who are concerned about the mystique of their brands and the vulnerabilities that more active and open communication represent. With this in mind, I would encourage companies to step with caution. But keep stepping forward nevertheless.

Your clients want to know more about the thought leaders behind the thought leadership.

They want to see that your company has clarity of vision and the ability to execute — and they want to see who’s behind the veil. They can’t gain trust in your people or your company if the things that matter to them are hidden from sight.