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What Is Thought Leadership?

Dec 28, 2020

Thought leadership is the expression of ideas that demonstrate you have expertise in a particular field, area, or topic. Many executives and business leaders strive to become a thought leader in their respective fields. It takes dedication, patience, strategy, and education. Most thought leaders not only have a command of their subject area, they are passionate about it and eager to share their knowledge with others to benefit a company, organization, or cause. Utilizing content marketing, social media, and other means to increase your authority and influence are key for successful thought leadership. In short, the definition of thought leadership is innovative thinking full of insight and information. It can even be inspiring, which is why many thought leaders are invited to speak at conferences and graduations, why they have many social media followers, why they become LinkedIn experts, and why their content marketing is widely followed. They can be quite a popular breed of leader because they are driven to stretch people’s minds, encouraging and even daring them to think deeply, differently, and in one direction: Forward.

What is the value of thought leadership?

Expertise, insight, and a valuable perspective are elements that lead to thought leadership status. To be an effective thought leader is to possess a depth of knowledge no one else has. There are several key benefits to this. 

  • Qualifies you as a reliable source of insight and information that can successfully influence others. 

  • Boosts your industry presence and builds your brand.

  • Establishes credibility in your field. 

  • Encourages you to focus on what you know best and look for opportunities to express it frequently. 

  • Offers unique guidance and inspires innovation. 

  • Encourages forward thinking.

Examples of thought leadership.

Anyone who has knowledge, experience, and a point of view are practitioners of thought leadership, most likely without even knowing it. So what does thought leadership look like? What does that term really mean? It can show up in any industry and any subject matter, big and small. Here are some examples. 

  • Steve Jobs believed that “you always had to be a little different to buy an Apple computer.” This thought inspired Apple’s “Think Different” advertising campaign, featuring real “geniuses” whose “crazy” ideas had a profound impact on the world. Many CEOs like Jobs are known for thought leadership because of their authority in an area, their ability to define important terms for the future, and more.

  • Fran Blanche fancies herself a “geek girl who makes stuff.” She had the foresight to combine her engineering background and “goofball” personality in weekly how-to videos (“Fran in the Lab”) that feature her fiddling with electronic components—something she knows like the back of her hand. Fran’s formula works. She’s amassed close to 150,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel. Co-founders and founders of organizations and groups often fit the definition of thought leadership because they are changing the area where they have experience.

  • An entry-level assistant for an online lifestyle publication expresses an interest in writing about fashion. His editor assigns him small pieces at first then much larger ones after the assistant’s writing skills and expertise blossom. He ultimately lands his own weekly fashion column, which helps boost readership by 30%, and gains him a huge following as a thought leader in the fashion industry.

Who should produce thought leadership content?

Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders in their field of expertise. But at what point can an individual or business consider themselves a thought leader and start producing thought leadership content? It takes time, skill, and tenacity to be able to be considered a recognized thought leader. For example, Steve Jobs didn't become a thought leader overnight. First he had an idea, and worked to hone it for years. He built a company that slowly over time, started to be successful. It was at that point that he was able to step into a thought leadership role and inspire people with his story. You'll need to have more than a LinkedIn profile to become a thought leader. You'll need to have proven your experience and understanding in a field in tangible ways to show to others that you are a voice to listen to.

You don't have to be Steve Jobs to become a thought leader. You can start researching and developing yourself in your current field. You can start writing articles and sharing them with others to get opinions, build a following on social media, and slowly begin proving yourself as an expert in your field.

May this example inspire those pursuing a career in management to start thinking about their own thought leadership strategy. A business degree can prepare you with the strategy development skills needed to secure yourself as a thought leader. And speaking of strategy, read on. 

Thought leadership strategy.

To establish yourself as a trusted figure in any field takes a lot of dedication, hard work, and time. Thought leaders are continually building their experience and credibility. Consider the principles of leadership and the following best practices of today’s successful thought leaders as you build your own leadership career. 

  • Enunciate your area of expertise. Clearly defining your niche or specific area of expertise can help you build your brand, establish credibility in your field, and raise your profile. For example, a garden author focuses her work entirely on what she knows best—succulents—and, as a result of the clout she’s built within the industry, is often invited to speak at major home and garden shows and write for popular publications. 

  • Go deep on a few topics vs. many. It’s perfectly fine to share your opinion on a wide variety of subjects to show you are a present, well-rounded professional. But the beauty about thought leadership is that success can come from streamlining your focus to a single specialty. Practicality and common sense can attest to the fact that covering too many topics can be much harder to manage and risks creating an impression of being scatterbrained or unfocused. Who wants a leader whose thoughts are “all over the place”? 

  • Keep up with the latest. The best thought leaders continually stay current on what’s happening in their fields, which is especially crucial in faster-evolving industries like technology. This gives them the opportunity to recognize and analyze patterns and trends in the market, which can inspire strategies for achieving business solutions. Keeping up with the latest industry news can also spur unique insight that the business leader can use to the company’s advantage. Example: Inspired by data from an industry trend report, Bill Gates introduces a product idea that would help streamline global communication for tech companies—an area in which he has deep knowledge and extensive experience. 

  • Listen to and learn from others. Unafraid to admit what they don’t know, true thought leaders make a conscious effort to understand and listen to what others have to say. This is a tried-and-true way to stay connected with peers in your field and expand your knowledge on a topic. The more people a leader listens to increases the probability of more ideas being shared, which is usually a good thing. In addition to harnessing the power of “listening to,” effective leaders also recognize the value of inviting others to “listen in.” Example: A CEO for a Fortune 500 company invites rank-and-file employees to join her and listen in on meetings where senior management give her business updates. Her thinking behind this? It encourages employees to share their opinions, increases the chances of a good idea being expressed, and creates a greater culture of inclusion and transparency that makes employees feel they are valued. 

  • Draw inspiration from multiple sources. While it’s true that a thought leader’s success can be attributed to a razor-sharp focus in a particular area, it’s important to draw from multiple sources within this area to increase the chances of a good idea springing up. According to motivational speaker Simon Sinek, best-known for his “Three Golden Circles” TED Talk, “leaders who can observe and connect information from a number of sources are generally well positioned to create ideas that are informed by the needs of the marketplace. Credibility combines that expertise with a measure of humility, honesty, and an appreciation for the human aspect of leading people.”

  • Consider the audience test. Clients, prospects, the business, and the media are your audiences, so use them as a barometer of how effective your thought leadership content is. If they’re not convinced, it’s time to revisit your approach to idea generation.

    -Clients. Make your content more about them than what you’re offering.

    -Prospects. Be the first to find emerging themes and bring insights to the table that nobody else has

    -The business. Align your content with the expertise you offer.

    -The media. Try your ideas out with a journalist while you’re in the development phase. 

Challenges of thought leadership.

Like all approaches to leadership, thought leadership has drawbacks. One potential pitfall may be a limited perspective. For instance, if business leaders are overly rigid or too focused on their areas of expertise, they risk missing out on ideas that could help support their endeavors. Also, since thought leaders tend to put themselves out there and often introduce a less popular way of thinking, they are bound to have detractors. A challenge? Certainly, because they need to be prepared to argue and defend their ideas. However, most thought leaders have  thick skin and can tough it. Challenge thrills and motivates them. 

It’s an honorable goal for someone to aspire to be a thought leader. Online classes and degree programs provide an excellent way for business leaders and marketers, for instance, to expand their knowledge and perhaps specialize in a new related discipline. After all, being recognized as a go-to authority—a trusted source for one’s ability to inspire others with their ideas and bring those ideas to life—is empowering on its own and even more empowering when it motivates thought leaders to try and replicate their successes. If, like them, you dare to think deeply, differently, and forward, thought leadership is definitely the way to have an incredible, potentially game-changing career. 

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