What Is Thought Leadership and How Can You Demonstrate It?

Thought leadership has become a popular way to showcase one's expertise—but what are the benefits of being a thought leader?
June 15, 2017

It's no surprise that thought leadership is something many aspire to today.

Thought leaders are perceived as knowledgeable sources of insight in a chosen field or subject matter area—some may even consider them to be experts. Simply put, a thought leader is someone other people listen to about a certain subject.

Being perceived as a thought leader may be positive for your career. Whether you are self-employed or work for a company, thought leaders typically become known by others interested in the same field or subject matter. Their opinions and thoughts matter, and they can help move others to change points of view or to act, as a result of their thought leadership.

However, the positive benefits of thought leadership can go beyond the individual. The benefits can spill over into marketing visibility and positive sentiment for the associated company. After all, people think, it must be a great company if a thought leader either started it or works in it, right?

But the question I often get asked is how does one become a thought leader?

Well, there's no course or degree for thought leadership that I know of. Thought leadership comes from having the curiosity to learn, a commitment to add to and hone your knowledge in a given field—and then being willing to share that knowledge freely.

What I'm saying is, how and whether to become a thought leader is largely in your hands. That said, I have three steps that can help you position yourself as a thought leader:

1. Learn the ins and outs of your industry.

Thought leadership starts with what's inside your head.

Thought leadership isn't created overnight. It takes time to learn a subject area deeply and crystallize your insights.

Most thought leaders I know are deeply interested in a subject they are known for—almost to the point of obsession. They read voraciously about the topic they are interested in. They subscribe to podcasts and attend conferences. They incorporate the topic into their business lives, by working in a certain field or sometimes simply by educating themselves in their spare time. They are always learning, reading, communicating, sharing.

You can't fake being a thought leader. If you don't understand the subject area or if you don't have a deep interest and desire to learn, it will soon become apparent.

2. Communicate in your preferred style.

Today, with so much emphasis on conferences and content marketing, the opportunities for displaying thought leadership are greater than ever.

Let's start with writing and publishing. Today, anyone can publish blog posts—and blog posts can be a great way to share your knowledge with the world.

Writing books is another way to display expertise. Anyone today can also publish a book. Remember, you don't need a publisher, necessarily. You can self-publish. Quite a few thought leaders today became known after starting a blog or self-publishing books. Some eventually went on to be hired by large corporations or the government, or were approached by well-known publishers as a result of their self-directed activities.

After you start writing and get some momentum going, seek other outlets for your writing. Writing on larger blogs, magazines or supplier websites are three options to expand your audience through your writing.

But what if you don't like to write? Don't worry. There are other ways to display thought leadership.

You can share knowledge that helps others by carefully curating information through social media. Simply find the best and most useful third-party content in your area of interest, and share it on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or other social platforms. If you do it consistently and often enough, you may build up a following of thousands on social media. Curation is an art, and has value in its own right. You can become known for how well you find and choose great content.

Or perhaps you prefer to speak. Speaking engagements—either in-person or via webinars, podcasts or videocasts—can also help increase the opportunities for thought leaders to be heard today. Many a budding thought leader has developed a following through starting a podcast series or a YouTube channel, or by hitting the conference circuit.

Of course, some thought leaders do all of the above. They are so deeply into their fields that they find every opportunity and means to share useful information with the world.

3. Adopt a long view on your path to thought leadership.

Thought leadership isn't created overnight. It takes time to learn a subject area deeply and crystallize your insights. It takes time to share what you know and reach enough people. And most of all, it takes time for others to notice and pay attention to your voice as a thought leader.

So my advice is, don't set a goal to “become a thought leader next quarter." It's most likely going to take longer than that.

You can certainly set a personal development goal for yourself and a goal for your company to learn more, and share your knowledge and expertise next quarter. But give it time, and recognize that just like so-called overnight successes, being perceived as a thought leader comes after many months and years of work behind the scenes. It's usually after consistent dedication for a period of time that thought leadership is recognized by others. Thought leadership is as much about the journey as the destination.

By getting out there and working consistently, you may be able to develop a following for what you know, and you may start to be perceived as a thought leader. Meanwhile, you'll be developing yourself and helping your company with your knowledge at the same time.

Read more articles on leadership.

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