How Do You Be A Thought Leader?

Thought Leadership

You should a thought leader. 

How many times have you heard that?

If you’ve read as many articles on marketing and communication as I have, you’ve heard it plenty. This isn’t even counting the webinars, videos, podcasts, and books that bring it up. 

It’s funny how often this advice is thrown out. What tends to lack is much information on how to actually do it. 

Write a blog. Have podcast. Get your articles placed in the media. 

All this can help but it doesn’t make you a thought leader. 

So, how do you become a thought leader and what are the benefits?

What’s a Thought Leader?

With all the talk about becoming a thought leader, you’d think somebody would stop and tell you what it is but it does sound good. 

Say it aloud with me, “Thought leader.”  Did you do it?

Come on, I’m being serious. Ready? 1-2-3, “Thought leader.”

It doesn’t just sound good, it’s sound great. 

But, like many other words that get thrown out there, it’s really nothing more than a buzzword most of the time. You hear it, fill in a definition of you what you think it means, and then assume that they mean what you think it means. This is a big assumption and you know what they say about assumptions. 

Google the term. You’ll find countless definitions and they all sound awesome. It really does sound like something you want to be. 

Let me show you. Here’s a thought leader definition from the Business News Daily

A thought leader, or influencer, is someone who, based on their expertise and perspective in an industry, offers unique guidance, inspires innovation and influences others.

Here’s another one for a website aptly called Though Leadership Lab

Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They become the trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success. Over time, they create a dedicated group of friends, fans and followers to help them replicate and scale their ideas into sustainable change not just in one company but in an industry, niche or across an entire ecosystem.

And a third one from Marketing Insider Group

…a type of content marketing where you tap into the talent, experience, and passion inside your business, or from your community, to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience on a particular topic. It’s not pedigree. It’s not where you went to school. Thought Leadership means you provide the best and deepest answers, to your customers’ biggest questions, in the formats your audience likes to consume.

All three of these definitions tap into the idea of expertise. They then tie into the idea that thought leaders help others.

Finally, they give answers. Not just good answers but great answers that inspire people and carry the thought leader’s ideas to others because after all, they are the experts.

Back to that idea of being an expert. Very important in thought leadership. 

Let’s create a definition for the purposes of this article.

Thought leaders are experts who share their knowledge to help and inspire others.

Simple. Maybe too simple but anybody I’ve recognized as a thought leader has done this for me. 

The Advantages of Being A Thought Leader

Recently I was on Clubhouse listening to Ann Handley speak about email marketing. There was a gentlemen who pointed out that when she launched her newsletter, which is a must read, she was already well known. He wanted to know what advice she would give herself back in 2002 about launching a newsletter as an unknown.

It was a good question but it was even a better point.

When Ann launched her newsletter three years ago she had already written two books, Everybody Writes and Content Rules, and was the Chief Content Officer at Marketing Profs. She was already a thought leader and I’m sure made it easier in gaining subscribers. People already wanted to know what she thought because she’s Ann Handley.

It’s kind of like saying, would you like to get advice on singing from Kelly Clarkson? If you’re interested in singing at all it’s kind of a, “well duh”, kind of moment.

When you don’t have the same status and make no mistake this is what we’re really talking about, it’s much harder.

Pre-American Idol, if Kelly Clarkson was giving singing advice people would have stopped and said, “Who the hell is this and why should listen to her?”

As a thought leader, you’re a known quantity and opportunities will present themselves that aren’t there others.

People don’t just want to know your opinion, they seek it out. Maybe it’s for an article. Maybe they want you to come to talk on their podcast, in their video series, appear in a webinar, or at their event.

Getting somebody like Ann Handley, Andrew Davis, Jay Acunzo, or Melanie Dezial to speak at your marketing event is like Dwayne Johnson showing up to your event celebrating action movies.

They meet the very definition of a thought leader in the marketing industry. They are known as experts, they share their knowledge with us and they inspire us.

In other words, they are famous for the expertise on a particular topic or topics.

This is why we want to hear from them. If they are willing to share their knowledge with us in an email newsletter, at an event, on a podcast, or on Clubhouse, I and many others are happy to show up to see what words of wisdom they will share that we can apply.

On some level, we want to be more like them.

How To Become a Thought Leader

First, you need to have a point of differentiation from others.

I talk about the PESO model, created by Gini Dietrich at Spin Sucks, often. PESO is her baby and she talks about it all the time. For those who might not know, PESO is an integrated marketing communication model that incorporates paid, earned, shared, and owned media.

All these pieces are used in the world of marketing but somebody who comes from a PR background embracing paid media is a novelty. Most PR pros I’ve run across do not like the idea of PR being involved in paid media so this makes Gini’s viewpoint unique within the world of PR.

You also need to carve out your niche. When I think of writing I think of Ann Handley. When I think of Jay Acunzo I think of podcasting. When I think of data I think of Christopher Penn.

What is your niche? When people think about you, what are they going to associate you with?

This is not to say that you don’t have knowledge outside of your chosen niche or can’t talk about anything outside of this.

The people I listed have knowledge well beyond the niche I’ve just associated with them and they share that knowledge as well. It’s just that they choose to focus the majority of their time in their niche.

Discovering your viewpoint and picking your niche are important but you need to believe in what you’re talking about.

If you don’t really believe in what you’re saying, people will sniff it out and your credibility will go down in flames.

Ann, Jay, Gini, and Chris aren’t just spouting ideas at random in a bid to gain followers. They are passionate about what they believe. You can feel it when you hear them talk or read their words.

These three things will help you get there but it’s not all.

I’ve been hinting at this next point throughout this piece.

You don’t get to choose if you’re a thought leader or for that matter, even an expert. Others make this determination for themselves. 

Go back and read the last two sentences again because it’s really important.

I used to love to go to the clubs in Hollywood and see bands play. These were all acts that may have had a local following but they weren’t known to the world at a large.

If any one of them would have stood on stage in a club of 250 people and proclaimed themselves the biggest act in the world you can probably guess how it would have been received. It would have been greeted with silence, laughter, or jeers.

It’s the same for anybody who wants to be a thought leader.

Ann Handley didn’t wake up one day and say, “I’m a thought leader.”

It took time. She needed people to know who she was and recognize that she had the level of expertise that they also wanted.

A music artist becomes a star because people buy their music and go to their concerts. The people consuming are elevating the artist to a certain status and its the same with you.

Like a music artist, you need to get in front of people and you have tools that will help you.

Social media, earned media, your own media such as a blog, podcast or a video series to name a few.

But none of this happens in a vacuum. How do you and your message get amplified?

I have met amazing musicians that were writing great music you have never heard simply because they weren’t able to get their music out to the masses. 

Rand Fishkin wrote a great article about this recently titled, Who Will Amplify This? And Why?

If you want to be a thought leader you need to read his article because amplification of you and your ideas is extremely important.

In the 1990s, when I was pursuing music, one had to have deal with a music label to get their music out.

If you weren’t able to get a music label behind you to help promote and distribute your music, your career was rather limited as an artist. It’s hard to sell product when nobody knows who you are. You needed to gain some fame.

This applies to thought leadership as well. People need to know who you are. You may have expertise that you’re willing to share and use to help others but if nobody knows who you are, you’re like the musical artist without the label behind them.

Even if you do all these things there is no guarantee that you will be seen as a thought leader.

The only thing you have control over is your ideas and how they’re presented. At that point, it either resonates with people or it doesn’t. 

Avoid the Pitfalls

Thought leadership isn’t without it’s pitfalls.

One of the biggest is to feel the need to comment on everything.

You have expertise and it’s going to go beyond the niche you choose for yourself but be aware of your limitations.

There is a difference between having a basic understanding of something and being an expert. Know where your expertise begins and ends because you can do damage to your reputation if you act like your an expert in areas that you really just have a basic understanding.

While you are entitled to your views, they aren’t absolute. There are other viewpoints and ways of doing things that will work just as well as what you are advocating. Don’t upset your audience by insisting that your way is the way.

Be humble. Learn from the mistakes you make, apologize, and do what you can to fix them.

Keep your ego in check because if you don’t it will cause you pain. Success has a way of inflating it to be much bigger than it needs to be.

Steve Vai, a world-renowned guitarist and three-time Grammy award winner who has played all over the world with Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, and as a solo artist, stated that ego was one of the biggest pitfalls he dealt with in his career. 

He was on the cover of many guitar magazines and highly praised as a guitar virtuoso. He said he started to construct the persona of being “the great one.” This came crashing down when grunge came in and his style of guitar playing was crucified.

When you’re seen as a thought leader you might also feel like you need to come up with the next big idea.  

Much like the music artist who has the big hit, the pressure is on to get another hit. The focus changes from helping to being seen as the expert. When this happens, you’re not trying to be a thought leader as much as your focusing on fame.

Ignore it. Be you. Embrace who you are.

Don’t focus on getting “hits”. Focus on being the most helpful and maybe you will become a thought leader.

*Photo by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels

Shane Carpenter