How To Become a Thought Leader

Jun 19, 2024 | Everything Else

“You can see by our outfits that we are both cowboys.

If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.”

Nope. You don’t become a cowboy just by getting an outfit. And you don’t become a thought leader just by saying you are one. Declaring yourself a thought leader doesn’t make you one any more than wearing a Lakers jersey with “James” on the back makes you an All-Star.

Joel Kurtzman coined the term “thought leadership” in 1994. He defined thought leaders as people “who possess a distinctively original idea, a unique point of view, or an unprecedented insight into their industry.” Since then, thanks to the internet and self-publishing, the number of “thought leaders” has exploded. But there’s a problem.

Genuine thought leadership is rare. Most of today’s self-anointed thought leaders don’t measure up. If you aspire to thought leadership, there are two things you must do.

You Must Think

A distinctively original idea, a unique point of view, or an unprecedented insight doesn’t come from reading a couple of books or a single flash of inspiration. You must master the industry or area where you aspire to be a thought leader. You must stay up to date with it. You must put in the time and effort to think about what’s going on and develop a unique take. It’s not easy. It’s not quick.

You Must Lead

Leadership entails risk. You must step out of the safety of the crowd and say things that are unconventional or unpopular. If you’re going to lead, you must be willing to be out front blazing a new trail. That takes courage because authentic leadership is a dangerous occupation.

There’s another important thing about leadership. You aren’t a leader unless you have followers. They’re the people who pay attention to what you say and change what they say and do because of it. They’re the people who decide whether you are a thought leader or not.

Thought Leadership Is a Long Game

Don’t expect a quick payoff. It’s not enough to be influential once. It’s not enough to have a single insight. Thought leaders build their reputations over decades. Consider the case of Sally Helgesen.

In 2018, Forbes called her the “premier women’s leadership expert.” That’s 28 years after her groundbreaking book, The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, was published. Since then, other books have demonstrated her evolving thinking, which is always just a little ahead of the rest of us.

That’s the rule, not the exception, for thought leadership—strong insights, opinions, and arguments developed and shared over decades.

Some Things You Can Do

If you aspire to thought leadership, you’ve got a long, hard road ahead. You’ll need to put in intense, focused effort over time. Here are some of the things you can do.

Learn everything you can about your industry or specialty. Read the books. Talk to the experts.

Reflect and ponder. Your unique experience will give you insights you can share. Sharpen them before you share them.

Learn to communicate effectively. Master the crafts of writing and speaking.

Use your tools to communicate widely and consistently. Present your own material. Comment on other people’s work. Test your assumptions and recommendations.

If you want to be a thought leader, there’s a long, challenging, and rewarding road ahead. Do you have the courage, craft, and character to become a real thought leader?

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