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Updated Oct 24, 2023

What Is Thought Leadership, and Why Does It Matter?

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Skye Schooley, Business Operations Insider and Senior Lead Analyst

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Attaining the status of “thought leader” is an elusive goal many true leaders and business executives strive to achieve. Being viewed as a leading voice in your field can be a major confidence boost – and it’s also great for business. 

But not everyone can be a thought leader; only so many personalities and ideas can truly break through the noise. However, with the right tactics, dedication, patience and education, you may be able to successfully influence others in your 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 valuable to individuals and businesses. As a notable expert in a specific company, industry or society, a thought leader offers guidance and insight to those around them. In other words, a thought leader has a positive reputation for helping others with their knowledge and insight. 

1. Thought leaders share insightful ideas. 

graphic of businessman standing atop a hill

According to Jake Dunlap, CEO of Skaled Consulting, 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 explained. “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. 

2. Thought leaders are leaders first.

However, sharing insightful thoughts and strategies is only one part of being a thought leader. Knowing how to be a good leader is also crucial. 

“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.” 

According to Akram, thought leaders create new ideas and know how to deliver results to back up their hypotheses.

Did You Know?Did you know

Thought leaders share many traits of successful entrepreneurs, including understanding industry trends, easily forming valuable connections and persevering through rough times.

How to establish yourself as a thought leader

You can’t create thought leadership overnight. It takes much more than one blog post, social media post or networking event to cement yourself as a trusted figure in any field. Expertise, insight and a valuable perspective lead to thought leader status. 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,” Rakowich 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.” 

Here are four ways to establish yourself as a thought leader:

1. Clarify your area of expertise (and stick to it).

graphic of colleagues talking at a conference desk

Dunlap says thought leaders must be clear and consistent with their insights within their area of expertise. Creating a business niche 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 advised. “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 valuable, relevant and educational advice. 

Although participating in things like charitable giving events and source interviews may not immediately increase your bottom line, the long-term results can benefit you, your business and your audience. Showing your audience 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. As a thought leader, you must 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,” advised 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.”

TipTip

To stay on top of small business trends and predictions, examine disruptions in financial, marketing, tech, human resources and other areas.

4. Listen to others.

graphic of colleagues talking in comfy office chairs

Thought leaders don’t have all the answers, and they’re 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 say. Learning from others in your field is a great way to stay connected and expand your knowledge. 

“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.”

Did You Know?Did you know

Growing your professional network gives you an opportunity to listen to others’ stories, learn from them, build on their experiences and position yourself as a thought leader.

How to boost your industry presence to enhance your credibility

Rogers believes thought leadership is an extension of someone’s personal brand. It requires building an authentic online reputation and social media presence via social media business platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter

“Social media platforms such as LinkedIn or Twitter … become the foundations for your thought leadership strategy and key channels for your social networking,” Rogers noted. 

Consider the following advice to boost your industry presence: 

  • Work with mentors and influencers. Talk to mentors and industry influencers about your passions, big ideas and what’s keeping you up at night. Observe how they started their businesses and now handle operations. Read and reflect on what they say on their blogs, on social media platforms, and during speaking engagements.
  • Attend in-person networking events. Seek out speaking opportunities. The more people you have 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 blog, it’s crucial to develop a steady stream of regular readers and followers. Publish guest posts on industry-related blogs, and grow from there to seek publication on broader, more authoritative sources. 

Becoming a thought leader starts today – and continues tomorrow

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. 

Becoming a thought leader isn’t a one-and-done goal. You’ll need to put in the work to stay respected and trusted once you get there. It’s a lifelong process of educating yourself, building an audience, coming up with unique ideas and fearlessly sharing them time and again.

Max Freedman and Adam Uzialko contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Skye Schooley, Business Operations Insider and Senior Lead Analyst
Skye Schooley is a business expert with a passion for all things human resources and digital marketing. She's spent 10 years working with clients on employee recruitment and customer acquisition, ensuring companies and small business owners are equipped with the information they need to find the right talent and market their services. In recent years, Schooley has largely focused on analyzing HR software products and other human resources solutions to lead businesses to the right tools for managing personnel responsibilities and maintaining strong company cultures. Schooley, who holds a degree in business communications, excels at breaking down complex topics into reader-friendly guides and enjoys interviewing business consultants for new insights. Her work has appeared in a variety of formats, including long-form videos, YouTube Shorts and newsletter segments.
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