It seems as if everyone I interact with is, or wants to be, a “thought leader.” But what does thought leadership actually mean? And why do so many self-styled thought leaders actually just seem like self-promoters? Technology analysts — the industry I worked in for 20 years — treat thought leadership as a sort of “king of the mountain” game, struggling to outcompete other thinkers with the power and visibility of their ideas. I learned a few things from watching and participating in that scrum.
What is a thought leader?
Daniel Drezner, author of the skeptical new book The Ideas Industry, says a thought leader is “an intellectual evangelist.” David Brooks, in a New York Times column, wasn’t so kind; he said, “The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler.” We need better definitions. Here’s mine:
A thought leader is a person who has created a coherent body of ideas and is effective at communicating and spreading those ideas to an audience they want to influence.
Why is this desirable? It certainly feeds the ego. But there’s more to it than that. If you traffic in ideas — if you are a writer, an analyst, a consultant, a think-tank thinker, an academic, or a corporate executive seeking influence — then your career depends on thought leadership. If a lot of people (or more importantly, a lot of people in in your target industry or category) know who you are and have heard your ideas, they are more likely to want to work with you. This makes money. And conversely, if they don’t know who you are or don’t respect your ideas, you’re invisible. The thought leader world is Darwinian; those with the most persuasive ideas, communicated and spread effectively, will thrive at the expense of those whose ideas or skill at spreading them are less fit for the environment.
How you (probably) fall short
There are a lot more people who want to be thought leaders than people who are successful at it. And even those who have had some success want more. Here are things you need to be a thought leader, why they’re important, and how to get them (summary chart at bottom of post).
1. A big idea
What it is: A single, counterintuitive concept, easily stated, that gets people to sit up and take notice. Do you believe that “Companies must embrace their critics” (Jay Baer)? That in the current presidency, “There is no White House, there is just Donald Trump” (Jay Rosen)? Unless you can quickly articulate your idea (not ideas, idea), you’ll never make it as a thought leader.
Why it matters: To succeed as a thought leader, you need people to identify you with a powerful, easily remembered idea. Without it, you’re just making little ripples instead of a noticeable splash.
Why you don’t have it: You don’t expose yourself to enough content and research. You don’t spend enough time thinking about it. You lack the talent or the help you need to refine the way you express it.
How to get it: Read a lot and talk to people. Have an insight. Try it out on people. Refine it. Find ways to back it up. Find the best way to express it.
What it is: A unique perspective on your field. People hearing it should say, “I haven’t heard that before!”
Why it matters: You don’t want to be a me-too kind of thinker. Leaders stand out, they aren’t part of the pack. It also helps to protect you from allegations that you’ve just stolen and repurposed other people’s ideas.
Why you don’t have it: Unique ideas are hard to find. It’s easy to convince yourself that your insight is differentiated, even when it isn’t.
How to get it: When you have an idea, Google the related concepts relentlessly. Test your idea for uniqueness with audiences. Determine who else is talking about this stuff. Keep rejecting or refining until you’ve created something new.
3. Supporting ideas
What it is: An action framework, a set of steps, a market breakdown, a process, a predictive method, a set of projections . . . some sort of structured set of additional ideas that support the main idea.
Why it matters: One idea is necessary, but not sufficient. To be an actual thought leader, you need enough content to keep us interested in the continually unfolding consequences of your idea.
Why you don’t have it: You didn’t think in a disciplined way about what your ideas mean. Or, you didn’t write down and refine a diagram or framework based on that thinking. Or, you’re just not good at structuring your ideas.
How to get it: Ask “what’s next?” “What does this mean?” “How does this apply differently to different groups?” Explore the dimensions of your idea.
4. A source of insight
What it is: Something that makes your ideas credible. For example, you could support your idea with data, such as survey data or aggregated Web traffic; learn from constant interactions with clients; or leverage access to political leaders and their opinions. What fuels your idea? How can you prove it or test it?
Why it matters: Unsupported ideas are brittle and fleeting. Ideas supported by data and tested in interactions persist. Thought leaders can’t survive for long just on opinion.
Why you don’t have it: If you don’t work as a consultant or in a research organization, you don’t have a steady stream of content to consume and analyze.
How to get it: Think analytically about your interactions. Increase their depth and frequency. And be creative in seeking data, including quick surveys, public data, or Web traffic from your company.
What is it: Identify case studies or other stories about how your idea affected somebody or how they demonstrate your idea. A good thought leader has at least a hundred of these and can deploy them in any industry or situation as needed.
Why it matters: People share stories. They remember stories. They want to hear about people like them. Examples boost the credibility of your idea.
Why you don’t have it: Tracking down case studies takes a broad collection of sources and a big network. If you don’t interact with hundreds of people, you won’t find enough stories.
How to get it: Network. Read incessantly. And always have year ears perked up for stories that back up your idea.
6. A platform
What it is: A spreadable stream of content that explains and backs up your idea. This could be a blog, a column, a regular slot on CNN, a podcast, a book, a YouTube channel, a Pinterest board, an Instagram stream, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Tumblr blog . . . or a combination of all of those.
Why it matters: Either you’re visible talking about your idea in a place that people can share, or you’re invisible. Invisible people are not thought leaders.
Why you don’t have it: It takes work, time, commitment, and talent to build a platform. It’s not just a blog. It’s a consistently published blog (or podcast, or Pinterest board, or . . .) full of interesting things.
How to get it: Post regularly and then diligently build and expand your platform.
7. Skill at expressing yourself
What it is: You need to perform your idea in some medium. So you need skill at writing, giving speeches, making videos, appearing on television, making satirical songs, or expressing yourself in some other way. You’re better off if you can perform in several of these modalities.
Why it matters: Your idea doesn’t exist in the audience’s mind until you express it and make an impression. Your skill translates directly into the impact of the idea. It also associates the idea with you.
Why you don’t have it: You may lack talent. You may just need to develop it. Or you may not have figured out your ideal mode of expression yet.
How to get it: If you’re writing, get an editor. If you’re speaking, get a speech coach. Otherwise, you won’t get better.
8. Promotional persistence
What it is: A commitment to get your idea and frameworks out into the world over a period of years.
Why it matters: You need to hammer on the idea constantly to get it out there. Your audience won’t all be tuned in to your platform. So you need bylined articles, quotes in media, podcast interviews, appearances on TV, op-eds, guest columns, and any other channel you can think of to spread your idea. (Note that, in the absence of ideas, this is pure self-promotion. You need to talk about what you know, not just about yourself and your book and your blog.)
Why you don’t have it: This takes connections, creativity, and persistence. Most people don’t have the stamina for it.
How to get it: Think about your audience. What do they read, listen to, or care about? Seek out those sources, and be generous. This is a lot easier if you hire a PR person.
9. Professional helpers
What it is: A network of experts that work with you, such as PR professionals, graphic designers, Web developers, content editors, copy editors, publishing experts (like me), research assistants, speakers’ bureaus, and so on.
Why it matters: Nobody becomes a thought leader on their own. You don’t have the skills that these people collectively have.
Why you don’t have it: Experts cost money. And there are a lot of consultants who will be happy to take your money but aren’t really going to help you.
How to get it: Find the people who already work with the successful thought leaders. They won’t be cheap, but they won’t waste your time.
What it is: Being a thought leader is about helping and giving, not just receiving adulation. You should always be thinking of the needs of your audience and how you can help them.
Why it matters: It keeps you focused and protects against arrogance.
Why you don’t have it: Success as a thought leader tends to go to one’s head. It becomes about your ego, rather than your audience’s needs.
How to get it: Ask yourself, every morning, “Who am I helping, and how am I helping them?”
Should you write a book? Get your thought leader qualities in order first.
I work with aspiring though leaders, helping them develop ideas and write books. But you can’t write a book proposal — let alone a book — without these 10 assets and qualifications.
If you need help with refining the ideas, expressing them, and spreading them, I can help.
If you need help with generosity, talk to your therapist or clergyman — I probably can’t help you with that.