Thought leadership is the key to unlocking a new level of professional accomplishment and personal satisfaction.
If you want to stand with honest and admirable pioneers who really do matter, then thought leadership is one of the easiest paths to achieve it.
By becoming a thought leader you will be viewed as a credible industry expert, one who cuts to the chase, through the noise and clutter, and the one who offers something truly worthwhile.
What is a thought leader?
A thought leader is an individual or firm recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. However, despite being conceived as a laudatory description, the idea of thought leadership is seen to be inherently confusing.
- In 1887, the Oxford English Dictionary gave a description of Henry Ward Beecher as being ‘one of the great thought-leaders in America.’
- In a 1990 article in the Wall Street Journal marketing section, Patrick Reilly used the term ‘thought leader publications’ to refer to magazines as Harper’s.
- Just recently (2017) political scientist Daniel W. Drezner noted his view on thought leadership as, “Thought leaders develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.”
- In the last decade the term was revived and reengineered by businesses and marketing professionals to either emphasize an intangible quality of products and brands, or referring to a potentially winning strategy to increase or create demand for a product or service.
- Forbes went so far as to define a thought leader as a person or firm that is not only widely recognized – but also who profits from the recognition of authority.
- Daniel Rasmus provided this definition: thought leadership should be an entry point to a relationship – it should intrigue, challenge, and inspire people, and it should help start a relationship where none exists, or enhance existing relationships.
To summarize: Thought leadership is about becoming one of the foremost authorities on a certain topic or selected area of specialization – delivering answers to the biggest questions of the target audience, related to these topics and their agendas.
Your level of authority will be determined by how well you answer the most important questions (your brilliance), your likability and approachability in this space (charisma) and how well you position yourself as the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.
Why is it important to be a thought leader?
Thought leadership is important in businesses and for brands because:
- It makes a significant and positive difference if you want to grow the business, or find new members, or more customers, or more generous sponsors
- Thought leadership defines the category or context of solutions in customer terms
- It simplifies the complexity and length of the decision-making process in business environments
- Cuts the potentially large number of people involved who makes it challenging to gain alignment
Bottomline, people are in businesses to make money – whether through products, services or both – with the additional aim to deliver exceptional service.
And being a thought leader is about making this more money through authentic and honest means, and becoming part of the conversation.
Thought leadership for leaders
People want to affiliate with those who are confident and well known. That’s why being a thought leader gets you through the door to corporate boards, government commissions, industry committees, stepping up to national and international stages, and opening up unexpected opportunities.
Being a thought leader, can bring about a promotion or a better job, an award or an unexpected accolade with opportunities to encourage and support others to become thought leaders themselves.
As your influence grow, so will your opportunities to create a significant legacy and impact on a larger scale that can inspire and bring about meaningful change – maybe even transforming teams, communities, industries, environments, eco-systems or governments.
How to become a thought leader
Identify your competencies and areas of expert knowledge
Don’t attempt to be a thought leader in every area related to your industry. Be crystal clear and consistent on your stances within your area of expertise and focus on what you know best. Hone in on these messages repeatedly with passion and focus. You will be far more effective if you identify the one arena where your interests, expertise, credibility and commitment align.
Know and accept the responsibility
Know that you will be in the spotlight, which means you may have to take serious and hurtful criticisms at times. As any other endeavor it will become about your internal dialogue – one that often requires soul searching in defining and redefining who you are to stay congruent and authentic with your cause. Sometimes you will have to be at the front and center, risking your reputation to espouse a new direction or vision of the future, often long before others agree with your point of view, so built resilience and grit.
Determine how exactly you will make an impact
Becoming a thought leader is much easier if you have already built a great product, service, or company because you then already have a base and something to talk about. But if you have not yet created something of your own, you should be willing to do the necessary work to systemize what you know – and with patience and fortitude build momentum.
A 2012 study found that just being confident boosts your credibility among your audience. Truly believing that you are an expert in your subject can make a tangible difference
Test your ideas and opinions
Mingle with knowledgeable stakeholders, colleagues, mentors and friends to gather their input, and continually refine your thinking. By listening to them you will distill many different points of view into the kernel of a transformative idea that can bring about the future you envision. This will also help you position and leverage your message to tell a bigger story.
Develop and implement guidelines and sets of best practises
To create evolutionary advancements in your field, you need to urge others to be open to new ways of thinking by creating a blueprint for people to follow providing a method, process, guidelines or a set of best practices. If you codify the steps necessary for others to follow in your footsteps, and assure that others will align with and build on your success, it will create a sure footed foundation that can become more significant and powerful over time.
Develop distinctive insights and actionable planning strategies for profit
Develop your acumen and intuition, and structure the means to more effectively garner new clients and do more business with current clients with the result being a larger bottom-line. Being selectively renowned can be very rewarding, but being wealthy as well is immensely better.
Monetize your state-of-the-art thinking
By increasing your ability to source, work with and profit from your target markets. Being a thought leader absolutely includes the ability to garner radically above-average returns for the investment and effort. In essence it’s all about making money and making history.
Always contribute to the conversations going on
Contribute to the conversations happening today, and be sure to speculate on what’s going to happen tomorrow. Set the pace for your industry and offer intelligent insights and informed opinions. Stay on top of trends, recognizes the trends before they happen and apply that insight to achieve actual results. Have the courage to express your ideas and inspire others to implement them. Have the discipline to study market dynamics to find patterns, then combine what you’ve learned, analyzing those patterns with your vision to solve problems.
Work with mentors and influencers, and network
Talk to them about your passions, big ideas and what’s keeping you excited. Attend in-person networking events and seek out speaking opportunities. The more people in your network, the more potential you have of becoming an authority or influencer. Admit what you don’t know, and remain humble enough to listen to what others have to say. Surrounding yourself with experts in your industry means their expertise bleeds into your own.
Sharpen your ability to distill your knowledge into a replicable model so that others can be inspired and empowered to expand on what you have accomplished. Get the word out about your activities, efforts and lessons learned. You need to both become discoverable and connect with those who can build on your ideas. Develop a steady stream of regular readers and followers by providing value through books, papers and guides. Once your reputation begins to expand, you can start sharing or making bolder claims and predictions.
Put in the time
Experience only comes from putting in the time and doing the work. As advertising analyst of Altimeter Group, Rebecca Lieb, said, “Like achieving academic tenure… thought leadership requires a continuum of wisdom, accomplishment, and a body of published work that stands the test of a degree of time.”
Activate your fans
Start to expand your impact and build a sustainable community of followers that will carry forward your efforts. Activate those people who can champion your ideas, thoughts, opinions, products or services to a much broader set of audiences. By articulating what’s in it for them, you’ll create real momentum for change and amplify your message.
As a recognized thought leader you will have the power to persuade, the status and authority to move things in a new direction, and the clout to implement real progress and widespread innovation.