The Oxford English Dictionary describes a thought leader as “one whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential.” So, for example, Sigmund Freud can be considered a thought leader in the field of Psychology. Or Malcolm Gladwell can be considered a thought leader in the field of contemporary critical theory.
Thought leadership can be seen in every field. These are people that everyone has heard of at some point or the other. We all want thought leadership in our respective markets. But in the rush of everyone clamoring to reach that lofty pinnacle, the pursuit can get noisy, tiring, and sometimes very frustrating.
However, in times of frustration, it helps to know with clarity—or in some cases, rediscover (if we’ve wandered off the path)—what thought leadership means at its core. Forbes defines it in two parts:
 A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise… A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.
The value of thought leadership reminds us why we’re in the race to begin with, and that can give us a second wind. But there’s more: the good news is that there are tangible, things-you-can-do-now steps that will bring you closer to that prized title of thought leader.
Whether you’re a company or an individual, you can also become a thought leader in the field of your choice. Here are a few tips to help you do so.
1. Know Thyself: Where Is Your Innovation?
Leadership cannot be faked. For this reason, step one to thought leadership will always be something very easy to define: identify the most innovative characteristics of your product and services.
Be warned: your strongest points—whether you’re looking for the best innovation in your products or in your people—can come when you least expect it from whom you least expect it. And identifying these strong points in unusual places might require a change in your company’s culture. As FastCompany writes:
…ideas within the enterprise can grow organically from anywhere—engineering, management, HR, even finance. While innovation doesn’t just happen, often an element of serendipity can drive an idea forward. In order for organically conceived ideas to take hold, the company’s culture must be conducive, treating every contributor as a partner in the process.
Here’s a perfect example:
Adobe achieved this task by distributing innovation kits to every employee in their company. Each kit had instructions on how a person could develop an idea he or she is passionate about and refine the idea through feedback and beta-testing until it’s ready for the limelight. This brilliant move made every company employee a potential innovator who could change the course of the company. (And, by the way, if that’s not a fantastic employee motivator and morale booster, I don’t know what it is.)
2. Share Your Thoughts
You have to find a way to share your thoughts with others before you can become a thought leader. This can be done in a variety of ways. Nowadays, the simplest and cheapest way of disseminating your thoughts is via a blog, social media, and across various video platforms like Youtube and TikTok. Podcasts, too, are growing in popularity.
However, these aren’t the only ways of putting out your thoughts about a certain topic. It helps to be featured in magazines, newspapers and other types of media too. So you should keep your eyes open for any opportunity that comes your way.
3. Clarify Your Thoughts
Becoming a thought leader is not just about sharing your thoughts with people. It’s also about clarifying them.
You can’t always keep writing or talking about the same thing in the same way. You need to approach the topic from different angles, write about other topics that are closely related to the one you’re interested in or bring in new scientific research that addresses the same issues. Additionally, you can also write the same thing but address it to different audiences.
One great example of how the same topic can be covered in a variety of ways for different audiences can be seen in the book Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield. Given how successful the initial book was, a sequel became inevitable. The interesting thing was that the sequels weren’t just written for a general audience but for various demographics, such as Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, Chicken Soup for the African American Soul, Chicken Soup for the Cancer Survivor’s Soul etc.
As mentioned above, it helps to address topics related to the topic you’re writing about. This leads into a horizontal expansion.
For example, let’s assume that you’re writing about web design. In addition, you might write about content creation, SEO, social media marketing and marketing in general. But in addition to this kind of horizontal expansion of your topic, you can also dig deeper and explore the topic more fully by specializing. This type of vertical expansion is equally, if not more important, to thought leadership.
If you look at the work of Malcolm Gladwell, for example, you’ll find both types of expansion. Gladwell is a writer for the New Yorker; he’s written about diverse topics, such as what is considered fair and unfair in the world of athletics, how criminal families are generally upwardly mobile, the unreliability of college rankings etc. However, in addition to these extremely diverse topics that he happens to find interesting, he has also gone in-depth into certain subjects. He did this by writing full-length books: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and David and Goliath.
So in Malcolm Gladwell, you see both, horizontal and vertical expansion. 1) He casts a broad net which covers a wide variety of topics and treats each of them with his own peculiar flair. 2) At the same time, he also goes in-depth into some chosen topics and explores them as fully as possible.
It is eventually this type of specialization that any thought leader becomes best known for because it’s only by delving deeper and uncovering the layers obscuring a topic that one makes new discoveries and develops a unique voice.
5. Be Yourself
There are many techniques that you can use to become a thought leader, from trying to reach a wide audience to specializing in one aspect of your chosen topic. However, becoming a thought leader is like making art. You can learn the technical aspect of the art and become very proficient. However, it’s up to you to actually add heart to your art.
You have to figure out what you want to say and why. You have to use the things you feel strongly about if you really want to make an impact. In other words, you have to be yourself.
The same goes for thought leadership.
You can’t imitate anyone else’s style of writing or just write about something because it’s popular. You have to write about something that’s meaningful to you in a way that resonates with you.
You have to find a “voice.” And if you feel that this is too abstract, just write about things that you feel strongly about. Everyone knows what these things are. Your style of writing or your voice will develop as you go.
6. Get Your Strong Points Out There with Creative Social Media Hacks
Once you identify your strongest points—the ones that have the greatest potential for transforming you into a thought leader in your industry—it’s time to unveil your treasures to the world.
And one of the best ways to do this is through innovative social media hacks.
For example, Josh Light on Quora.com put together this simple but oh-so-beautiful technique that creatively repurposes Twitter’s advanced search feature. (And I will quote his bullet points exactly as he laid them out so you can see his thought process.) In six simple steps:
- Create landing page.
- Create some piece of content that is related to landing page (think advertising scent).
- Insert call to action in content somewhere that directs reader to landing page.
- Tweet the content. Include pictures. Use Flickr to find a picture that is cool, and is available in the public domain.
- Search for keywords in Twitter’s advanced search that are related to the content you’ve just created.
- Follow people that show up from the advanced search. First thing new followers will see is an email notifying them of your follow. They’ll see your picture and bio. Use bio as copy to promote them to visit Twitter page. First thing they see on page is your tweet . . . because they just talked about this same subject the probability of a retweet is higher. 15% or more will follow you back. Some will go on to your landing page.
This example is a very simple trick, but that’s why it’s such a beauty. Some of the best hacks are the ones that make you slap your forehead and say, “This is so simple, yet effective. Why didn’t I think of that?”
These are just a few of the things you can do with social media.
7. Listen Well
The most elite salesperson knows that it’s not strong-arm pitches that separate the top 3% in sales from the rest.
It’s listening skills.
It’s having that uncanny ability to ask the right questions and listen patiently—almost obsessively—until you know exactly, and I mean exactly, what the potential customer wants.
The same principle applies to thought leadership. No one will follow you if they don’t feel you understand their wants and needs. Listen well.
Search through forums and find the questions related to your product or service that people are dying to know. When you meet a potential client, don’t monopolize the conversation or apply pressure. Just listen. Ask open questions. Really dig deep to understand where the person is coming from.
8. Don’t Stop the Generosity: Engage and Become a Mentor
After you’ve gained followers, the next step is to keep the dialogue going.
When they ask questions, go above and beyond as you engage them, whether online or in person. Don’t be afraid to overload them with information or invest in a long, time-consuming conversation or email thread. The more you dialogue with your followers and invest in their success, the more they will see you as a mentor, a role that is also known by another name.
Looking for more great reads? Check out these related articles:
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- Make Your Thought Leadership Count by Integrating Internal Experts
- Native Publishing: The New Thought Leadership Frontier
- How Webinar Series Can Build Your Thought Leadership
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- What is the Best Way to Implement Thought Leadership in Content Marketing?
- Why Your Thought Leadership is More Important Than Your Writing Ability