Thought Leadership

Thought Leadership: What it is and Why You Should Pursue It

Post by
Gail Kent

Today thousands of people are taking control of their careers by becoming thought leaders.

Today thousands of people are taking control of their careers by becoming thought leaders. They are not waiting for others to decide what their futures will look like. They are making their own futures.

 

Whether they launch their own businesses or become highly sought executives in corporations, thought leaders call the shots in their own careers. They do not cringe in back offices waiting for pink slips to be passed out or send out hundreds of resumes hoping for a nibble or two

The internet and online publishing have made it increasingly achievable for “real” people to become thought leaders. And thought leadership provides a cornucopia of benefits:

  •  Finding meaning in your work and in your purpose
  • High-level career accomplishment, achievement and satisfaction
  • Winning more clients, promotions, raises and awards
  • Career security and mobility
  • Greater credibility as an expert and change agent
  • Increasing exposure and publicity for you and your ideas
  • Networking with influential people
  • Raising your visibility to the national and international level
  • Becoming a role model
  • Becoming a catalyst for change in your industry,community or the world
  • Greater life satisfaction
  • Leaving a legacy of transformation

Thought leadership is the ultimate in job security. Thought leaders don’t have to worry about where their next job will come from if they are downsized – as unlikely as that would be – because they have huge networks of raving fans ready to recruit them should that happen. Or, they can seamlessly transition their platform into a lucrative consulting or coaching practice.

 

More than anything else, freedom is the hallmark of thought leadership – freedom to choose your future because you have created your own personal brand. You are never too young and inexperienced to begin building your thought leadership platform. It will propel you faster than traditional career climbing and create opportunities that you cannot foresee. But you are also never too old to begin leveraging your knowledge and experience.

Ageismin the workplace is real. Two out of three people between 45 and 74 say they have experienced or seen age discrimination at work. According to the AARP Public Policy Institute, when older people lose their jobs, they are more likely to remain unemployed longer than younger people, and when they find work after an unemployment spell, their earnings fall by 23 percent compared to 11 percent for young workers who have been out of work.

 

The best time to fight ageism is before you hit 40 by building your reputation as a thought leader when you are young. Failing that,the next best time to begin building your reputation is now – preferably before you have lost your job. But if you have lost your job and you’re working your way back to full employment or self-employment – increasingly the option for older, experienced executives – you have no time to waste.

 

If you are already self-employed as an expert, consider a goal of thought leadership as inherent in your work. Entrepreneurs and small business owners must differentiate in today’s competitive environment to standout in the crowd. A 2010 study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of the workforce will be freelancing. “In this changing ecosystem, collaborative partnerships between big and small firms will be on the rise. Small firms will contribute innovative practices with market agility and customer knowledge that big firms can’t easily achieve,” the report said.

 

What this means is that it isn’t enough to just hang up your shingle – you must distinguish yourself. It is that point of differentiation that you can and should develop as a thought leader. By razor-sharp focusing on the differentiator, providing new ideas and approaches and expanding your audience’s knowledge and understanding in your niche, you set yourself apart from others. While doing so, you influence others’ thinking, develop a loyal following and provide value to the world.

So, what IS thought leadership?

Thought leadership is a buzzword coined about 20 years agoin Booz & Company’s magazine, Strategy+Business,when the editor called some business icons “worth talking to” thought leaders.Since then, the phrase has come to take on a variety of meanings. Google the term, and you will not find a fixed definition. LinkedIn is full of people who describe themselves as thought leaders, which seems much like labeling your self intelligent, beautiful or charming. Thought leadership is a goal to aspire to,but to call yourself a thought leader is brash and best left to others.

 

Because the term “thought leader” is so squishy and abused,some people refuse to use it. They prefer other terms such as “recognized expert,” “a personal brand,” “influencer,” or simply “expert.” These terms have their own limitations and biases, as does all language. Words are merely symbols, after all, and their meanings are constantly changing. They are“pointers” to concepts and meanings that we try to communicate, but we cannever be sure that those who receive our meaning understand them the same way we intend.

 

For my purposes, I will stick to the original terms,“thought leadership” and “thought leader.” Recognizing that there are many definitions for thought leader, I offer the simplest one for the sake of brevity. A thought leader is an expert ina niche who is sharing his or her knowledge with others in an organized,intentional manner.

As in the arts, sciences, technology and other fields, there are levels of achievement in thought leadership. Here are the nine basic characteristics of thought leaders that I call the Thought Leader Nine (TL9):

  1.  They master a body of knowledge in a field through study, skill and experience;
  2. They develop an original perspective on some aspect within their field, pushing the boundaries outside the accepted status quo;
  3. They have a deep desire to share their knowledge and ideas to educate others;
  4. They go over and above regular job responsibilities to invest the time and expense necessary to spread their knowledge and ideas for no remuneration;
  5. They have the courage to take a stand and are often controversial; they back up their positions with intelligent arguments;
  6. They expand their sphere of influence by cultivating relationships with people who can help them multiply their impact;
  7. They use their communication skills to establish a highly visible platform from which to share their knowledge and opinions;this platform can take many forms, either online or offline, or a combination of the two;
  8. They develop a sizeable following who values and trusts their knowledge, ideas and opinions.
  9. They create something new, such as a process, a product or an organization, that provides rewards to both the followers and the thought leaders.

The most successful thought leaders create a groundswell of visibility and credibility, branding themselves as change agents in their niche or industry. They achieve name recognition and fame. Some, such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, even change world history. These“super” thought leaders – if I may call them that – attain a level of thought leadership that not every aspiring thought leader can, nor necessarily needs,to reach for career or life satisfaction.

The difference between leadership and thought leadership

In the film City Slickers, the wise old cowboy character played by Jack Palace tells Billy Crystal’s character, who is searching for meaning in the midst of amid-life crisis, that the secret to life is simple as he holds up one finger.“One thing, just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean shit.”

Crystal responds, “That’s great, but what is that one thing?”

 

“That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” Palace says.

 

Ah! There’s the rub. Finding your one thing! But once you do find your one thing, the thing you are singularly passionate about, you must become forever positively connected with that one thing in your audience’s mind. That is the definition of branding.

 

Some ad agencies and design studios would have you think that the essence of branding is a pretty logo and website, but those are just accessories. Yes, they are important in helping you express your brand, but if you don’t know what your brand it, your graphics, website, tagline and other materials may not express your brand at all. It’s as if you are wearing your Nikes with an evening dress. Branding goes to the heart of who you are as a person or business. It’s your one thing.It’s what sets you apart from everyone else on the planet.

 

As a thought leader, you must have a unique twist, some important new ideas or a creative direction you want to take your one thing. You aren’t just branded, you are ultra-branded as you push past the boundaries and unleash concepts and initiatives that rattle the established norm.

What does this have to do with thought leadership? Everything.

Most of us know people who we consider as leaders. They maybe people in our organizations, companies, churches or cities. They may have hundreds or even thousands of people who work for them, control large budgets and have great responsibilities. Perhaps they have terminal degrees in their fields, are well respected among their peers, employees and the community.

 

But as accomplished as these folks may be, they aren’t necessarily thought leaders if they haven’t brought something new to the table and branded themselves tightly with their unique, important, inspiring, people-and-event changing ideas. In fact,thought leaders often oppose leaders, in that leaders often seek traditional solutions to problems, while thought leaders are disruptive and create chaos,at least in the short term, “short term” being relative. Consider the chaos created by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in 1859, which is still creating controversy!

 

We need leaders – they are usually just different animals than thought leaders. Traditionally, leaders are good leaders if they get people to follow them without too much deviance or questioning. That’s typically the dynamic you find in most large corporations, though some are beginning to open the door to alternate management structures. Generally,businesses that begin as small, entrepreneurial enterprises become lumbering,top-down, leader-oriented corporations when they grow. That’s why they hire small, nimble, thought-leader consulting firms to kick them in their soft spots and wake them up again.

But corporations that adopt thought leadership models are those that will survive and grow in the new economy. “Corporations that embrace thought leadership as a strategy for growth represent the essence of market leadership, corporate accountability and changing the rules of client engagement,” writes Glen Llopis, a management consultant and author, in Forbes.“Thought leadership is about introducing new ways of thinking that will reinvent industries and significantly impact business models, the marketplace,employees, consumers and the workplace.”

Llopis says it’s time for corporations to “showcase their executives as thought leaders,” but being an executive does not automatically make you a thought leader. Thought leaders must earn their stripes as such,whether they are individuals within a corporate structure, solopreneurs,coaches, consultants or community organizers. Thought leadership cannot become just a meaningless “flavor of the month” in business management or it loses its transformative power.

Thought leadership is risky business

Both leaders and thought leaders require the ability to motivate and inspire people to action, but thought leaders inspire people to think differently and take action on new, and sometimes, dangerous ideas.Galileo was convicted of heresy and spent the rest of his life under house arrest after supporting Copernicus’s theory that the sun rather than the earth was at the center of the universe.

 

Fortunately, most thought leaders today in the West are not imprisoned or murdered because of their ideas, but these examples illustrate the level of commitment and risk that thought leaders assume for their ideas.In contemporary times, the risk to thought leaders is more often in the form of public ridicule. Let’s face it – we all fear “what others think.”

 

Taking a stand for what we hold dear and believe to be true,especially in the Internet Age, can seem as intimidating as walking naked down Fifth Avenue.  We’ve all read and sometimes been the victims of nasty comments on social media, but they aren’t fatal. They are to be expected when taking a controversial stand. And when we lay a foundation of support through networking, an important component of thought leadership, we can withstand the slings and arrows of naysayers.

 

No, thought leadership isn’t an endeavor for the faint-hearted. If you only want approval, just keep your mouth (and brain)closed, never utter an opinion and do whatever you are told. You should arrive at the end of your life neat and tidy, unknown even to yourself, possibly with an ulcer or two. You may wonder if there was more you could have done with your life if you had acted on that idea you once had, but were too afraid to say or do anything about. But, oh well, it’s too late now, somebody else should do it.

Who IS thought leadership for?

If you are a coach, consultant, expert (self-employed, in a corporate setting or a hobbyist), entrepreneur, non-profit founder, writer,researcher, community organizer or political activist – or want to become one of these – and you have a gnawing desire deep in your soul for some thing greater, then perhaps you will want to aim for thought leadership.

 

Maybe you aren’t interested in becoming an internationally famous person. That’s okay. That’s not the point of thought leadership. You can be “famous” within your small industry or hobby niches, or in your local community.Maybe you’ll just become famous to your own clients as you change their lives with your unique approach to solving their problems. I’ll be introducing you to ordinary people throughout this book who have become thought leaders in their worlds by converting their extraordinary ideas into actions that have inspired and changed people’s lives.

 

Here’s the thing about thought leaders – there is no Who’s Who of Thought Leaders, and there is no panel of judges granting or denying entrance to the club. By committing yourself to the TL9, you will grow immeasurably, broaden your network and raise your profile as an expert if you work on the steps outlined in this book. As Norman Vincent Peale said, always shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’lll and among the stars.

The thought leader mindset

If you are considering embarking on this journey, you must first examine your motivation. At the beginning of this chapter, I listed the many benefits of becoming a thought leader, and they are valuable. But they are not reason enough. You must be intentional with your desire to be a thought leader. If your desire is to become a thought leader simply to make money,there are easier ways. If you are enthralled with the idea of becoming more visible, developing a following and networking with important people, that is your ego talking, not your heart.

 

Your motivation for becoming a thought leader must come from a deeper place inside you or it simply won’t work. You must have a strong desire – truly, a passion – to create and share something with the world that will improve people’s lives. It’s not a choice for you. You can’t NOT do it.Nothing else will satisfy you or you would do it. This thing you want to create,whether it is a business, a movement, a campaign, a process, a product or something else, must come from a mindset of love.

 

It may sound odd to talk about love in a business book, and I’m not talking about sitting in a circle, holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.”But great thought leaders know that you must give before you get. It’s called the rule of reciprocity. When you give value to people without concern for what you are getting back in return – call it karma or God or the universe – it works to return value many times over. This giving without expectation is the very definition of love.

 

The system for creating thought leadership is based on the rule of reciprocity – love – so you must approach your quest not only from your intellect, but from your heart. Keep your ego at bay. Trust that the rewards will come.

 

This does not mean that if you are starting a business, anon-profit or a new job that you must work for free. It does mean that you must be generous in your relationships with people as you share your ideas,expertise and time. We will get into more detail in later chapters. The important concept to accept at this point is that you must give willingly,wantonly and wastefully if you desire to become a thought leader.

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