- A thought leader, or influencer, is someone who, based on their expertise and perspective in an industry, offers unique guidance, inspires innovation and influences others.
- Establish yourself as a thought leader by stepping back from your business agenda, clarifying your area of expertise, listening to others and continuing your education.
- Boost your industry presence and build your brand by working with mentors and experts, attending in-person networking events, and getting published as often as possible.
Attaining the status of "thought leader" is an elusive goal that many business leaders and executives strive for. However, with the right tactics, along with dedication, patience, and education, you may be able to successfully influence others in your respective field and become a reliable source of insight and information.
What is a thought leader?
While the term "thought leader" might sound like another corporate buzzword, its meaning is very valuable to individuals and businesses alike. As a notable expert in a specific company, industry or society, a thought leader is someone who offers guidance and insight to those around them. In other words, a thought leader has a positive reputation of helping others with their knowledge and insight.
Jake Dunlap, founder CEO of Skaled, said that thought leaders draw on the past, analyze the present and illuminate the future to create a comprehensive, unique, and impactful view of their area of expertise.
"They possess an innate ability to contribute to the conversations happening today while also being able to speculate on what is going to happen tomorrow," Dunlap told Business News Daily. "Rather than chime in on every topic, they set the pace for the industry, and offer intelligent insights and informed opinions."
This unique ability allows thought leaders to bring a point of view to the table that cannot be obtained elsewhere. This is especially helpful for running a business.
"A thought leader recognizes trends before they happen and applies that insight to achieve actual business results," said Numaan Akram, founder and CEO of Rally.
However, sharing insightful thoughts and strategies is only one part of being a thought leader. Knowing how to successfully lead is crucial as well. [See related story: 4 Ways to Define Leadership]
"I believe thought leaders are not only on the cutting edge in terms of their ideas, but [they] also know how to inspire and influence others," said Walt Rakowich, a leadership speaker and retired CEO of ProLogis. "Leaders can have great ideas, but true thought leaders have the courage to express their ideas and inspire others to implement them."
Additionally, Akram said thought leaders not only create new ideas, but they also know how to deliver results to back up their hypotheses.
How to establish yourself as a thought leader
Thought leadership is not something you create overnight. It takes a lot more than one blog, social post or networking event to cement yourself as a trusted figure in any field. Expertise, insight and a valuable perspective are elements that lead to thought leadership status. Rakowich said you must build your experience and cultivate credibility over the long term.
"Experience takes time, patience, hard work, and a willingness to listen and learn from others," he said. "Those leaders who can observe and connect information from a number of sources are generally well positioned to create ideas that are informed by the needs of the marketplace. Credibility combines that expertise with a measure of humility, honesty and an appreciation for the human aspect of leading people."
1. Clarify your area of expertise (and stick to it).
Dunlap says thought leaders need to be clear and consistent with their insights within their area of expertise. Creating a niche market or specific area of expertise can help you build your brand and establish credibility in your field.
"Don't attempt to be a thought leader in every area related to your industry," Dunlap said. "Instead, focus on what you know best and hone in on that message repeatedly. It's more effective to go deep on a few topics than to spray across too many complementary topics."
2. Step back from your business agenda.
As a thought leader, you must understand the issues that impact your audience and offer useful, educational advice driven by these issues.
Although taking part in things like charity events and source interviews may not increase your bottom line immediately, the long-term results can be beneficial to you, your business and your audience. Showing your audience that you are a present, well-rounded professional can steadily build your reputation and credibility as a thought leader.
3. Keep learning about your industry.
Every industry is evolving – some faster than others – and as a thought leader, you need to stay on top of what's happening so you can share and comment on trends.
"You must constantly learn [about] your industry, as well as the macro forces at work in the broader economy," said Akram. "Being a thought leader requires forward thinking, but you must also have the discipline to study market dynamics to find patterns. From there, you can combine what you have learned, analyzing those patterns with your vision to solve real-world problems."
4. Listen to others.
Thought leaders don't have all the answers, and they are never done learning. Mark Rogers, Psy.D., founder and CEO of Insights Without Borders, noted that it's important to admit what you don't know and remain humble enough to listen to what others have to say. Learning from others in your field is a great way to stay connected and expand your knowledge on a topic.
"True thought leaders genuinely understand and listen to each other's stories," said Rogers. "They treasure [the fact] that we are all in the human journey and the authors of our own lives."
How to boost your industry presence to enhance your credibility
Rogers said thought leadership is an extension of one's personal brand, specifically his or her ability to build an authentic online reputation and social media presence.
To boost your industry presence, Rogers advised aspiring thought leaders to do the following:
- Work with mentors and influencers. Talk to them about your passions, big ideas and what's keeping you up at night. You can observe how they started and now operate their businesses. You can read and reflect on what they say on their blogs and social media platforms, and during their speaking engagements.
- Attend in-person networking events. Seek out speaking opportunities. The more people who are in your network, the more potential you have to become an authority or influencer.
- Get published as often as you can. Even if you start by self-publishing or writing content on your own blog, it's important to develop a steady stream of regular readers and followers. You can publish guest posts on industry-related blogs and grow from there to seek publication on broader, more authoritative sources.
Once your reputation or brand begins to grow, you can start sharing or making bolder claims and predictions about your industry. Continue this cycle to become a trusted thought leader in your industry.
Additional reporting by Adam C. Uzialko. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.