In the time I’ve been in PR, the number of clients or prospects who’ve said to me, “I want to be a thought leader” or “I want the brand to be positioned as a thought leader” are many.
While achieving thought leadership is a big goal, it also shows your commitment to being innovative, to sharing your knowledge with your colleagues, industry and the younger generations who can learn from your experience, while also contributing to the knowledge pool for your field to help it innovate and stay relevant. Done well, it also obviously opens business and career opportunities. It’s a way to establish a profile with media.
Simon Sinek is known worldwide as a thought leader.
So, what is a thought leader? Does it mean the same thing for everyone? Does it mean you have to be a household name? On the speaking circuit? Known to thousands?
The quick answer is no. What thought leadership might look like and mean for you might mean something totally different to the next person, and (IMO), that’s great and how it should be. Being a thought leader should align to who you are as a person, what you value and the business, people and industry you want to speak for.
In this article I’m breaking down what it means to be a thought leader to show that it might not be as unattainable as you think.
Being known as a thought leader can lead to speaking opportunities.
What is a thought leader?
A thought leader is an ‘expert among experts’. Someone people turn to for ideas, inspiration and guidance on a topic. Thought leaders are passionate about their subject. They are willing to speak openly, candidly and publicly about their beliefs. They either see trends emerging before the majority does, or they can comment on trends as they emerge and show how they are relevant to the industry they speak for.
What does it take?
When we think of thought leaders, we think of people we’d pay to see speak in person. Who can comfortably speak in front of a vast audience. People who are called on by the media for interview. Who have their own podcast. They started blogging in the 90s or sometime when the internet was dial-up and you were still trying to find the Internet Explorer icon.
Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Obama. Stephen Hawking. Arianna Huffington. Tony Robbins (love him or otherwise). Simon Sinek. Overwhelmed yet?
Tony Robbins is considered one of the founding modern thought leaders.
People love him or hate his approach.
This is the mainstream definition of thought leader. Maybe we can call it the definition of a ‘celebrity thought leader’.
When you look back to the definition of the term, all you need is to have impact within your sphere. If you’re a biologist studying spinal neurones in chickens, you’re probably never going to have a mainstream audience. But if you’re a biologist studying spinal neurones in chickens, who cares? The audience who needs to consider you as thought leader are your peers, the journals that report on your research and those who fund your research. A smaller – but more achievable – pool of people to establish yourself with, right?
Scientist in a research lab
When you’re thinking about what it takes to be a thought leader, think about who you need to establish influence with and why. The audience will be smaller than you think and the prospect is less daunting and out of reach.
What are the benefits?
Now that we’ve established that to be a thought leader you don’t have to necessarily channel Barack Obama and head out on a stage to address 100,000 people, let’s talk about the benefits of being a thought leader within the sphere that will have the most benefit to you, your career, and the businesses you will lead.
Barack Obama addressing a rally.
When you’re a thought leader (in this instance, I’ll list some of the benefits of being a thought leader from the c-suite), some of the benefits are:
- The people you lead know who you are, what you stand for and your plans for the business. They know what they’re working towards and how they can support the support the business to succeed
- Being visible engenders trust. When your stakeholders feel they know you this translates to trust – trust in you as a leader and in your business
- Writing content and sharing your insights and opinions online is how the media, event organisers, podcast producers, potential partners or clients all find you. If you want to be known, be active online
- You will be seen as credible
- Your network will grow
- You will eventually establish a platform to talk about the social topics you are most passionate about
I’ve been asked what’s the difference between a thought leader and an influencer. An influencer is about their follower numbers. Some people may disagree. A thought leader has a following because of their expertise and knowledge.
You don’t need to have the following of Ariana Grande to be a thought leader.
What’s my point?
Don’t start out building your profile putting the pressure on yourself to be a thought leader from the outset. Being a thought leader doesn’t mean you have to have millions of followers on Instagram and four published books already. Being a thought leader is about providing insight and adding value to an audience that has value to your and your business. You might be a thought leader to a niche audience. Or a niche within in a niche. If that helps you be a better leader, helps you lead your business to greater success and means you share your knowledge with your industry so others can gain from you then that’s all you need.
Angela Cross is a reputation strategist who works with c-Suite leaders and brands to build and protect their reputations through PR, corporate social media, industry profiling, stakeholder engagement, and effective issues management. If you would like to build your reputation with purpose and authority, email her here.