Article

Jay Denhart-Lillard
Jay Denhart-Lillard 3 March 2016

Anatomy Of A Thought Leader

What goes into being a thought leader? How would you know that you have ‘arrived’ at that particular designation? Many of us work really hard at developing a reputation for being an expert in a specific topic area, but being considered a thought leader is a step above just having a good reputation.

It involves winning a significant amount of influence in an industry or category and being able to wield that power to drive innovation and change through your own ideas. So how would you construct a thought leader? What are the essential ingredients to bring you the respect, authority, and fame that a real thought leader has? The steps to reach this goal are not impossible, but it does take more than naked desire to get you there.

What it’s not:

  • Is it boasting or trumpeting your achievements and knowledge? Nope. Though you can fool a few people for a while, it doesn’t get you anywhere that you can depend on.
     
  • Qualification or experience? Actually no – highly qualified people don’t always achieve it either. You can’t go to school to become a “thought leader,” nor can you complete a graduate program and earn some kind of certificate or formal recognition as such.
     
  • Position, wealth or power? No – you have to remember the story of the warrior king and the great sage.
There once was a great warrior king who met the great sage -- venerated as the ‘Knower of All’ -- who also had a wish-fulfilling divine cow. Despite his valor and wealth, the king envied the respect and eminence the sage enjoyed, as well as his magic cow. Mad with jealousy, the king ordered his soldiers to seize the cow but failed and had to be pardoned. The wounded king turned to penance, austerity, and self-control -- eventually eschewing his pettiness and false sense of pride, which thereby earned him the respect that he so long sought after. He had learned the source of true power and became the new ‘Knower of All’, even greater than the sage. .

So no – power and position won’t get you there, either. And there’s an additional lesson in there about the need for giving back, rather than taking, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

What it is:

So what are the elements required? I propose that it is as simple as amassing trust and respect on a wide base. But while simple, these qualities can be really hard to come by and even more difficult to build a following around. To be a recognized a ‘thought leader’ or guru, the world has to feel that you are one. And to build this trust and respect from others, you start by developing your own passion around the ideas which are close to you -- ensuring that your care and heart are palpable to others, and you’ll be able to stay the course and keep going when things get rough.

Then you have to refine your skill sets and expand your professional connections consistently, because while education alone won’t give you influence, you do have to know what you’re talking about or you’ll be perceived as an empty suit. To continue to grow, you’ll need to introduce new ideas on a constant basis, and help others within your organization and industry get to know your ideas. Becoming more of a ‘giver’ is a valuable strategy to get where you want to be. Because the more informed you can be, and the more helpful you can be, then the greater the value you can offer to those around you.

And what you offer is the real secret sauce for becoming a thought leader. Because respect and trust can be built by being the best possible resource for others and an expert educator of both your peers and your prospects.

What You Can Do:

Here are a few ideas for how you can get on the thought leadership track:

  1. Identify and build on your strengths: Commit to build on your passions and strengths to give your skills a chance to shine. Keep focused and stay grounded in who you are. Your authenticity and caring will be the fuel to inspire other people to take action.
     
  2. Know your audience: True thought leadership is about empathy, so spend the time thinking through your customers’ tensions, frustrations, and unmet needs. For your work to be engaging, direct, and relevant, it should help people do something or give them insight that helps them better understand their job, their market, or their world.
     
  3. Listen and learn: Successful mentors are the ones who engage people in genuine conversations and connect with them proactively. They invest time and build long-term relationships that flourish on values such as fairness, openness, listening to others’ point of view, and articulation of nuanced responses that are sensitive to where the other person is coming from.
     
  4. Network like a LION: Crafting good content is great, but you need a community to share it with for it to gain momentum. Those who want to drive change constantly network and seek out new influencers who can amplify their point of view, both in traditional and social media. They write and respond to topics relevant to their field and feed this community with content and ideas.
     
  5. Be humble: Audiences genuinely appreciate presenters who show that they can be vulnerable. A legitimate, sincere expression of uncertainty can go a long way in building trust, because it shows that you are actively seeking knowledge, pursuing possibilities, and sharing that enthusiasm for exploration.
     
  6. Give back: True thought leadership makes itself available freely. So share valuable information without the urge to always monetize it, and don’t be afraid to evangelize the top-class ideas of other influencers. These other thought leaders don’t have to be seen as competition, but can become allies who may share your content, too.
     
  7. Create something truly new: Refine your voice until you can consistently bring forth something new and powerful to the discussion in your community. To lead requires vision, and an ability to navigate a path forward from where your industry is today, to a new place. Until you can articulate to others what this new world could be, and show them the way to get there, you might remain influential, but not a leader.

The ultimate definition of a successful thought leader might be the person who is trusted to be compelling, useful, and meaningful to the largest number of people, and still being able to justify their own ROI. So try to learn the lesson from the story of the King and the Sage, and realize that what you give away eventually can be what lifts you up.

Eventually you’ll have people seeking out your opinion, conferences inviting you to present, and experts looking to you for your input. And even if you don’t think that you’ve ‘arrived,’ you can be sure that you’re on the right track.

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