A Twitter user recently asked what a thought leader is. Someone quickly replied that a thought leader is the invention of marketing departments. Well, not really.
True thought leaders exist, whether or not they express themselves through social media, videos or marketing channels. Thought leaders are people who possess and share unique insight on topics of value to other people.
Thought leadership isn’t just about marketing a product or service. That’s more the province of influencers who try out products and share their impressions, often for a fee. Thought leaders share what they know, with or without charge.
Think of thought leadership as the ultimate form of show-me communication. Thought leaders offer worthwhile thoughts based on their experience, knowledge and viewpoint. Some thought leaders are more glib than others. Most know how to use words and visual content to convey salient, thought-provoking thoughts – in-person, in print, online or on stage.
A recent blog post was headlined, “How to make your boss a thought leader”. That puts the cart before the horse. Thought leaders don’t need to be “made”; they must be discovered. Bosses aren’t automatically thought leaders, and you don’t have to be the boss to be a thought leader. Thought leaders are self-made, sometimes with a little help.
Not everyone with thoughts worth sharing knows how to express them. They might not even be aware their thoughts are worth sharing. The role of professional communicators is to recognize and nurture thought leadership potential.
Jim Ylisela, co-founder and senior partner of the Ragan Consulting Group, offers some useful tips for cultivating thought leadership. His most important advice to would-be thought leaders is to identify and stick with what they know best. The subject matter doesn’t have to be world-shattering or fodder for a Ted Talk. It just needs to be genuine and compelling. In other words, it needs to be worth consuming.
The process of thought leadership should advance beyond genuine and compelling to why a topic is important. A good question to ask is, “Who would want to know this information and why?” Thought leadership is no different than basic leadership. You are only a leader if you attract followers.
Ylisela encourages starting small. It takes time for thought leader followership to build. One way to pick up steam is to contour thought leadership commentary on the crest of topical news. Marketers call that newsjacking. “People will follow you because you have something to say about the news of the day,” Ylisela says, “and you ‘advance’ the story with your insights.” Effective newsjacking establishes a reputation for timelineness and fleshing out a topical story with context and fresh perspective.
Thought leadership is not a one-and-done exercise. Thought leaders must commit to frequent posts, preferably with enough regularity so their followers know when and where to look. Ylisela calls it “getting more at-bats”. You increase your odds of a ‘hit’ with more swings. The most productive homerun hitters frequently swing and miss, but they keep swinging for the fences. At-bats are key to discovery – both for a thought leadership voice and a thought leader’s following.
Where thought leadership is shared can make a difference on whether it is read or viewed. Ylisela suggests LinkedIn as a natural platform for thought leadership posts, and I agree. LinkedIn provides built-in avenues to “find” followers or let them find you. There also is a role for Twitter to promote thought leadership posts. Don’t overlook newsrooms on websites or blogs associated with a thought leader. If information is of value, it’s worth sharing and promoting as widely as possible to reach the audiences who will value the information.
Thought leadership can be expressed equally well – and sometimes better – on video and in podcasts. These outlets require more production support, but can expand outreach substantially on channels such as YouTube and Spotify. They also personalize thought leadership by enabling audiences to see or hear the thought leader.
News channels constantly look for “experts” for commentary on breaking events or to introduce new perspectives on continuing issues. Media relations staffers routinely pitch news outlets on thought leader interviews, often citing something posted or published. Thought leaders aren’t born by appearing on a news show, but these appearances can increase their visibility and attract followers.
If you don’t like debate or being disliked, you shouldn’t aspire to become a thought leader. Thin skin is not very good armor for thought leaders.
Thought leadership can cover virtually any topic or viewpoint. Usual elements of thought leadership include providing useful context and deeper understanding of an issue that is topical – or being unfortunately overlooked. Ylisela suggests thought leadership also should bring clarity and calm to subjects that are confusing and contentious, especially if the subject is something people want to know about.
Thought leadership is not for everyone and shouldn’t be confused with a charm offensive. Thought leadership involves entering the arena of public discourse and being exposed to pushback or even attacks. Many followers of thought leaders can disagree, and possibly follow a thought leader with the objective of disagreeing. If you don’t like debate or being disliked, you shouldn’t aspire to become a thought leader. Thin skin is not very good armor for thought leaders.
Become a thought leader with purpose, not just for positioning. If you have something to contribute on one or more subjects, thought leadership is a good avenue to pursue. However, if you try to become a thought leader merely as a marketing ploy, spare us. There is enough fake news without adding thought leadership fakery. Leave thought leadership to men and women who have earned the title of thought leader.