Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Thought Leader?

Being a great leader doesn't make you a thought leader. Here's how you can achieve the highest of honors in your industry.
June 25, 2013

What do Robert Scoble, Umair Haque and Nate Silver have in common? They’re all considered to be at the peak of respect and innovation in their industries—part of a pantheon of so-called “thought leaders.”

The term thought leader is the highest of compliments, and arguably the hardest moniker to achieve. It’s not enough to be good at what you do; a thought leader is meant to be the greatest form of praise, applied to people on the absolute cutting edge of their industry or making big enough moves to warrant the distinction.

But what separates a thought leader from any other leader, and how do you become one? Let’s take a look at this buzzword and discover how it can help you build your business.

What is a Thought Leader?

The term thought leader was first coined nearly 20 years ago, in the pages of Strategy+Business, the business magazine of technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. When discussing the publication’s profiles of major business icons, then-editor-in-chief Joel Kurtzman called those worth talking to thought leaders.

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The term was so popular that it became its own entity, encompassing leaders and even small businesses. But according to Forbes, the term thought leader is only reserved for those who are “capitalizing on the dramatically enhanced brand equity attained by being a thought leader.”

Is it achievement that makes someone a thought leader? Or clout? Or Klout? Let’s peel back the layers to understand just when someone is worthy enough to be able to print that phrase on a business card or book jacket.

How to Become a Thought Leader

There are effectively two sides to the thought leader coin: pushing the boundaries of a particular method or industry, and then using those ideas to leverage ubiquity on social or broadcast media. But achieving those two things simultaneously is actually more difficult than it sounds.

To put it simply, thought leaders are not only known for radically changing thoughts or ideas about a particular industry, but thriving in it too. For example, Nate Silver became the premier thought leader on statistics when his blog, FiveThirtyEight, accurately predicted the results of the November election exactly in both state majority and ultimate electoral college votes. After weeks of dismissive behaviors from analysts and research centers, Silver’s accuracy boosted him into the new role of election thought leader.

The moral of the story? Do something everyone else in your field thinks is dumb, and be right about it.

Granted, that may be a bit oversimplified, but it’s that kind of hard left (or right, or 180-degree) turn that, when successful, can grab the right kind of attention.

More Than Leadership

So, what separates regular leaders from thought leaders? In a lot of cases, it’s the same thing that made the Harlem Shake popular: virality.

It’s one thing to be the most successful, most efficient or most management-oriented leader in an industry, and it’s quite another to be a thought leader. For one reason or another, thought leaders have earned their title because their ideas have gone viral. When an idea multiplies and distributes itself throughout the Internet—with the person’s name attached—then leadership becomes thought leadership.

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It sounds very shallow, but in the end, thought leaders are made because their ideas made them famous. Their expert cache would not resonate the same way without that fame—they would just be well-known in their field of choice.

The interesting thing about thought leaders is not only that they have weird, wacky and alternative ideas that work, but they also have strong enough ideas to transcend the inside-baseball talk of their environments and educate the general public. It’s not easy, but doing so will mean a lifetime of speaking engagements, a heavy social media following and repeat appearances on Good Morning America.

How it Helps Your Business

You might be thinking, "I already have a great product and regular customers. Why do I need to become a mini-celebrity in my industry?" Of course, being seen as an industry leader can bring in press that will give your business more exposure, but it's also a great way to network and meet potential partners.

But more importantly, becoming known as a thought leader shouldn't be your goal. It's just the icing on the cake of creating something truly innovative. When you're willing to take risks and do things that are unconventional, you'll find others in your industry looking to mimic you and learn from you, and eventually you may earn the respect that labels you, too, a thought leader.

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