3 Steps to Becoming a Thought Leader, and Why It’s Critical to your Business

Published Feb, 9 2011
Business & Branding, Content Marketing

Ever notice how certain industry leaders have a distinct center of gravity that attracts acclaim, recognition, and opportunity like so many moths to light? You know the types – they’re endlessly quoted, their presence is frequently requested, and business seems to simply fall into their laps. Though these folks are in every conceivable industry and profession, they’ve got one thing in common: Thought Leadership.

What is Thought Leadership?

Thought Leadership is the power, however informal, that comes from having innovative ideas that push forward the limits of understanding. Mind you, thought leaders are not necessarily geniuses that have all the answers. In fact, the most interesting thought leaders come up with the best questions. It is the insatiable and uniquely human quest for answers that drives innovation, enhances productivity, and spreads prosperity. Why do apples fall from trees? Why is the sky blue? What’s the speed of light? What’s beyond our solar system? Why not have a giant cell phone-like thing and call it a tablet?

So, you’re not a genius, or at least the creator of a popular social bookmarking website? Us either, but don’t fret! Not all thought leaders are heralded through the ages like Isaac Newton, Lord Rayleigh, or Kevin Rose. Many a thought leader has a more humble but still significant role. Thought Leaders are simply informed people or organizations that vocally or otherwise influentially ask the questions that we would never think of, and in doing so drives innovation and helps us make better decisions.

We trust thought leaders because we recognize them for not only having a deep understanding of their business and customers, but also for their ability to stitch together larger macro factors into an articulated appraisal of the world as they see it. Enjoying that perspective can be as complicated as keeping up with Stephen Hawking at a dinner party, or as beautifully simple as putting on John Lennon’s rose-tinted glasses.

What’s the Point of Becoming a Thought Leader?

As noted above, thought leaders tend to exist in a sort of positive feedback loop. By nature of people perceiving them as having value, they gain it. Subsequently, an aura of opportunity and success seems to hang around them. Newspapers and blog quote them, leads land in their lap, people ask them to show up at events, and coal turns to gold with mere glances. That’s not to say that these people don’t actually have some intrinsic value, only that their worth is buoyed and reinforced by their enjoying the venerable title of thought leader. Sounds hard to break into such a choice role, doesn’t it? You’re right!

How Do I Become a Thought Leader?

The above quip is no joke – it is not easy to become a thought leader. After all, what good would it do you if becoming a thought leader was simple? You want to stand out and project your confidence and abilities, not get lumped in with every other Average Joe. The point is that’s it’s absolutely possible for you to join their esteemed ranks. The good news is that becoming a thought leader probably won’t take you much more time than you’re already spending keeping up with and promoting your speciality. The trick is following a coordinated strategy, which can be broken down into 3 steps.

1) Own Your Niche

Your niche is your metaphorical kitchen, and there’s no chef there but you. What is it that you do better than anyone else? How does that skill or talent add value to customers? Hone in on this value proposition in everything you do. Blog posts, tweets, branding, Facebook posts, email marketing, you name it – you need to tell the story about how you’re a rockstar at what you do, and how no one does it better than you. If the President had a red phone with you at the other end, what would he ask?

2) Question Boundaries

Imagine yourself as the editor of the definitive journal or newspaper for your profession. You own the opinion page – what would you write about? What broad trends are emerging, what’s just over the horizon, and how do you make sense of it all? It doesn’t matter if you’re right – Ben Franklin thought he’d be remembered for poured concrete houses – it just matters that you’re the force behind the conversation, relentlessly pushing forward the conversation, and thus playing a starring role in the innovation process.

3) Listen, Engage, & Share

The best thought leaders don’t condescend to cast wisdom upon the world from some distant isolation. Rather, the best are in the trenches, with eyes and ears everywhere. Some of the most well-known thought leaders never miss a relevant convention or networking event, because they understand that you never know where the next big idea will come from. Use all tools at your disposal, technological or otherwise, to evaluate industry trends and listen to your customers. Share freely your findings and take care to magnanimously elevate those around you.

If you can persistently and consistently lead a conversation that articulates your professional expertise, industry knowledge, and connection to customer needs, then you’ve got everything you need to elevate yourself into a thought leader. All of this, of course, gets back to search marketing fundamentals: being found by qualified customers searching for your services, immediately being perceived as a credible choice, and having a site capable of converting customers into a positive ROI.