What is a Thought Leader? FAQ
When I talk about thought leadership, people often ask me a few key questions. So, I thought I'd address them all right here. If you have additional ones, please contact me. I work with executives, entrepreneurs, non-profit leaders and their teams who are taking the journey from leader to thought leader and/or creating a thought leadership culture.
What is a Thought Leader?
Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success. They create a dedicated group of friends, fans and followers to help them replicate and scale those ideas into sustainable change not just in one company but in an industry, niche or across an entire ecosystem.
The thought leaders I admire are the ones like Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, Nina Nashif, founder of Healthbox and Ron Finley, the co-founder of the charity L.A. Green Grounds who styles himself as the ‘Gangsta Gardener’ in order to encourage Angelenos to cultivate vegetable and fruit gardens in vacant lots in deprived neighborhoods.
They are changing the world in meaningful ways and engage others to join their efforts. They create evolutionary and even revolutionary advancements in their fields not just by urging others to be open to new ways of thinking, but when they create a blueprint for people to follow – they provide a method, process, guidelines or a set of best practices. Thought leaders who codify the steps necessary to follow in their footsteps assure that others will align with and build on their success. This guarantees that they are not confined to making small tweaks around the edges, but instead create a foundation for others to build on or a movement for others to join.
Can ANYONE be a thought leader?
Thought leaders do come in every shape and size, they do come from any background or community and they can be any age, gender or ethnicity. That said, not just anyone can be a thought leader. Thought leadership takes time (sometimes years); knowledge and expertise in a particular niche; a certain level of commitment and a willingness to buck the status quo or the way things have always been done.
Becoming a thought leader is much easier if you have already built a great product, service, program, initiative or company because you will then have a natural community and something to talk about. That said, we have worked with individuals who have an area of expertise but have not yet created something they can call their own. If you are willing to do the work to codify what you know and you have the patience and fortitude to build momentum over time, then you can still become a thought leader in your niche.
Why should I become a thought leader?
What I have witnessed over and over is that thought leadership is the key that unlocks a whole new level of professional accomplishment and achievement as well as career and personal satisfaction.
If you’d like to increase your strategic visibility – by which I mean visibility and standing with the people who matter – then thought leadership is one of the easiest paths to achieve that. I’ve seen thought leaders become rainmakers who attract customers for their products, clients for their services, partners for their companies, followership for their blog, readership for their books, and funders for a project they have underway.
Thought leadership leads to exposure for your ideas both inside and outside your company – particularly with journalists, analysts, event organizers and conference hosts. It will give you access to people who can help you make things happen - leaders in your organization or community; innovators in your profession or industry; or researchers in government or regulatory circles. (Read my Thought Leadership Manifesto for more ideas of how to build your influence with thought leadership.)
As a recognized thought leader you will have the power to persuade, the status and authority to move things in a new direction, and the clout to implement real progress and widespread innovation. People want to affiliate with those who are well known and in the know. Thus, thought leadership also leads to invitations to join corporate boards, serve on government commissions and participate in industry-wide committees – opportunities to raise your profile from the local to the national to the international stage.
Thought leadership is not about being known, it is about being known for
making a difference.
As a thought leader, you will be in the spotlight. This can bring about a promotion or a better job, an award or an unexpected accolade, a portrait on the cover of the Wall Street Journal or a story in an industry magazine that engages your whole community to finally unite around the fundamental transformation you have been advocating. More likely than not, it will lead to an unexpected invitation to open a new door to an opportunity that you never thought was possible, including the chance to encourage and support others to become thought leaders in their own right.
And, perhaps most importantly, it can, for many, answer the deeper question – why am I here, what is the meaning in my work, what will I leave behind? As your influence and platform grow, so will your opportunities to create a significant impact on a larger and larger scale, to inspire and bring about meaningful change that can last long after you’re gone. As a thought leader, you will leave a lasting legacy – transformed teams, communities, industries, systems or governments.
Are there risks to being a thought leader?
Yes, there are some risks – you will be in the spotlight, which means you may take some pretty painful arrows. Besides the external arrows, making the journey from leader to thought leader is also an internal dialogue – one that often requires some soul searching and the willingness to, as I call, it ‘put your “I” on the line’ – step into the spotlight as the person who is ready to lead the way.
If you are facing that crossroads, I invite you to ask yourself, "If not me, then who?"
Whenever I speak about this aspect of thought leadership, I use an image that to me sums it up beautifully – it is a picture of a tiny orange kitten seated before a beautiful antique mirror. In the mirror he sees, reflected back at him, not his own tiny kitten self, but instead an enormous orange lion, calm and majestic.
There are many reasons that people connect with this image. Whether we like to admit it or not, we've all been that kitten looking in the mirror. Depending on what messages we tell ourselves, who we surround ourselves with, or how things are going in our lives, we see a lion with more or less frequency. If you are a budding or even a successful thought leader and you are not seeing a lion in your mirror right now, I invite you to contact us about how we can help. Our goal is to create a lot of lions!