Running a successful business is a tall order, but even more challenging is becoming a figure for others to look to for inspiration. Whether within your own company, your industry, or society at large, attaining the status of "thought leader" is an elusive goal for which many entrepreneurs and executives strive.
What is a thought leader?
While the term "thought leader" might sound like another annoying corporate buzzword, it's much more. A thought leader, or influencer, is someone whose expertise and perspective is valuable enough to offer guidance to those around them. In other words, a thought leader cuts through the static with knowledge and insight.
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, said Jake Dunlap, CEO and founder of the sales consulting firm Skaled. In doing so, they bring to the table an understanding that cannot be obtained elsewhere.
"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. Rather than chime in on every topic, they set the pace for the industry and offer intelligent insights and informed opinions," Dunlap said.
"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, a company that coordinates crowdsourced event travel.
As the phrase implies, though, having these insightful thoughts and ideas is only part of being a thought leader. The "leadership" portion counts for a lot, too. [See Related Story: 33 Ways to Define Leadership]
"I believe thought leaders are not only on the cutting edge in terms of their ideas but also know how to inspire and influence others," said Walt Rakowich, a leadership speaker and the 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."
Akram agreed: "It's one thing to come up with new ideas, but being a true thought leader is all about delivering results to back up those hypotheses," he said.
Establishing yourself as a thought leader
Thought leadership is not something you create overnight or proclaim for yourself. 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 valuable perspective are the elements that lead to thought leadership status. So, you must build your experience and create credibility over the long term, Rakowich said.
"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."
Mark Rogers, founder and CEO of management consulting company Insights Without Borders, said thought leadership is an extension of one's personal brand, specifically his or her ability to build an authentic online reputation.
"Social media platforms such as LinkedIn or Twitter ... become the foundations for your thought leadership strategy and key channels for your social networking," he said.
Rogers advised aspiring thought leaders to take the following steps to boost their industry presence.
- 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 of becoming an authority or influencer.
- Get published as often as you can. Even if you just start by self-publishing on Medium or 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 followership begins to grow, you can start sharing or making bolder claims and predictions about your industry, Rogers said.
Here are a few more things to keep in mind as you work toward becoming a thought leader.
Clarify your area of expertise (and stick to it)
Dunlap, of Skaled, reminded professionals that thought leaders need to be clear and consistent in their stances within their area of expertise.
"Don't attempt to be a thought leader in every area related to your industry," he 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."
Step back from your business agenda
As a thought leader, you must understand the issues that impact your audience and offer upbeat, educative advice driven by these issues, not just what your corporate agenda demands, said Stevenson.
"Educative PR is a slow burn in terms of return on investment, but displaying care and competence within your industry will open new doors across the board, not only in sales but also with collaborations," he said.
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 Rally's 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."
Listen to others
Thought leaders don't have all the answers, and they're never done learning. Rogers noted that it's important to admit what you don't know and remain humble enough to listen to what others have to say.
"True thought leaders genuinely understand and listen to each other's stories," he said. "They treasure [the fact] that we are all in the human journey and the authors of our own lives."
Adam C. Uzialko also contributed to the writing in this article.