(I was invited to be part of a panel on thought leadership for the Colorado Chapter of the National Speakers Association. What better time to post the following blog?)
Being a thought leader is different than being perceived as one. Many claim to be a thought leader. But thought leadership is conferred, not claimed. Rather than simply posturing, here are some challenging things that most eventually do to truly be recognized as thought leaders.
- Have an original thought. Consolidating everybody else’s thoughts and agreeing with their conclusions is hardly thought leadership.
- Add something new to the conversation. Are you an innovator in your area of expertise? One clue you might be a thought leader is when others start quoting you because you’re saying something that either hasn’t been said before or you are adding a new dimension to the idea and/or the way you say it.
- Give speeches that people are willing to consistently pay to hear. That doesn’t guarantee you’re a thought leader, but it is better evidence than speaking for a local civic group meeting and purporting to be a thought leader because you got a free gig.
- Write a really good book. In the age of the internet, self-publishing is very easy. Even publishing a traditional book isn’t that hard. Selling lots of the book you write (regardless of how you publish it) is very hard. Even marketing by itself won’t likely sustain a mediocre effort. If you write a really good book that benefits others, that increases the odds you might actually be a thought leader.
- Practice what you teach. It is tough to be a thought leader in any area where you don’t have real world experience. If you’re going to be a thought leader in sales, you probably should have had a successful career in selling and ideally innovated the sales process in some way. And to stay current, you either need to keep practicing or embed yourself with clients who are doing what you talk about.
- Do some research. Researching other research and synthesizing it has value but it isn’t primary research. One of the reasons that Jim Collins is a true thought leader is that he does the hard and exhaustive work of designing, administering and analyzing original research.
- Know what other thought leaders are writing and saying. Do you know who are considered the seminal experts in your arena? What are the best books written on the subject? Are you involved in the professional organization or association of your profession? No thought leader is an island.
- Study hard. Think hard. Deep thinking is hard and that’s why it isn’t often done. No intellectual pain, no thought leader gain. Superficiality is the curse of thought leadership.
At the end of the day, there are far more thought followers than thought leaders. There is nothing wrong with finding and distributing good ideas. That in itself can be a noble and worthwhile activity. But creating the perception you are a thought leader is far easier than actually doing the hard work of becoming one.
Claiming to be a thought leader is like claiming to be an expert. Once you open your mouth and start talking or people open your book and start reading, they’ll know whether you are or aren’t. As always, the market decides. You can “game” the system to get a book on a best-seller list, but you only stay on that list if people read the book and recommend it to others (not to be sucking up to our blog host, but The Fred Factor is an example of a thought leading book that is still a strong seller years after its publication). True thought leadership creates its own following through the value of ideas, not through marketing or promotion. True success is always sustained by the creation of value, whether in widgets, speeches, or innovative thinking.
Mark, this is an exceptional blog post about the subject. All of your points probably fall within two larger principles concerning thought leadership. One is to embrace thinking as work. Too many people fail to appreciate that thinking requires input (focus, concentration, emotional balance) and produces true results. The other is intentionality. Creating original thoughts, or developing ideas to deeper level, requires intention. While great ideas sometimes strike without warning or preparation, to be a true thought leader requires seeking out deeper more meaningful thoughts on purpose.
One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is “There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” Obviously, a thought leader would not see thinking as pain, but as valuable work to be done well.
Joseph, you have summarized my blog elegantly. Thinking hard work? That’s why I used Rodin’s The Thinker as a graphic. The left elbow on the right knee is uncomfortable (if anyone doubts me, try it). The artist visually conveyed the effort of truly thinking.
Joe, I appreciate your kind words. You know I consider you a thought leader as does your following of clients (and this isn’t reciprocal sucking up). Your book A Category of One is a powerful concept that has been widely embraced by forward thinking companies.
This all seems like way too much work. I think I’ll just continue to retweet your stuff and ‘borrow’ some of your best speech material to share with my audiences. I’ll try to remember to credit you if people ask where I came up with all my brilliant ideas.
Eric, if someone is familiar with my blog, your work and our recent collaboration, they’ll understand the satire in your remark. Regrettably, there are some who do take the path of least resistance and borrow if not outright steal ideas from others and present them as their own. The irony, of course, if that you recently wrote a book called Reviving Work Ethic where you presented your own research and thinking on a topic that is often discussed but rarely studied. Like our friend Larry Winget says, “It’s called work for a reason.” That applies to any worthwhile endeavor, thought leadership included.
Eric, you make me laugh so much! I believe you are just joking though. Thanks Mark, I’m doing some of your suggestions already and loved #2 the most. I listen your interview with Darren Hardy on my Success Magazine CD – discussing your new book and I can say you are a thought leader.
Everyone is born to have an innate leadership skills. This one is a good article for those who have alot of things in their minds but couldn’t speak up.
Here’s the beauty of making the effort to think harder and deeply: it only ever gets easier. As Paul Romer pointed out in Joel Kurtzman’s original book on Thought Leaders (in which he interviewed 12 of the most significant business leaders and thinkers of the time, “The more we discover new things, the better we become at the process of discovery itself.”
The research I’m doing (and the work I’m involved in) bears this out. If you can push yourself to ask better questions, resist leaping on the first idea that comes, and avoid the current lemming-like rush-to-print, then over time the thinking that typifies those rare individuals — thought leaders — becomes second nature.
Thanks to share and I can tell you it’s helping me a lot Mr. We are in Haiti and we build now and organization a new way to help the youth and adults, children. Your thoughts help us a lot to do all that.