What is a Thought Leader?

"What is a Thought Leader?" Smiling Yellow Face in Sad Blue Faces Graphic
April 25, 2018
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~by Jennifer Scott~

You may have already heard the term ‘thought leader’ floating around, and not thought much of it. After all, it’s just more office jargon, right? In fact, that isn’t the case at all. A thought leader is someone or something that can become incredibly valuable to your industry. Here’s everything you need to know about them, and how they can help you and your business.

What Is A Thought Leader?

In the simplest terms, a thought leader is an individual or business that’s recognized as an authority within their industry. They’re the people that others look to to move things forward, as they have ideas that are ground breaking and intriguing to others.

The way thought leaders work and lead others in their field is considered revolutionary. They’re often sought out and rewarded for their ideas, as they’re the people who aren’t afraid to step outside of the comfort zone and find new ways to work.

Isn’t ‘Thought Leadership’ A Buzzword?

Many people feel that ‘thought leadership’ as a concept is a meaningless buzzword, something that’s thrown around in meetings but ultimately doesn’t mean anything. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Thought leadership is a real concept that businesses have grasped and used to their advantage. You’ll likely know several businesses that have built their brand on thought leadership, as they’ve tapped into what their customers want.

Where Does Thought Leadership Come From?

Thought leadership can come from anywhere within your business. There’s experience everywhere, and if someone has it they can start making changes and bringing your business to the forefront of your industry.

This means that a thought leader won’t necessarily be the person higher up in the company, or the person who’s the most publically visible. They may be working away lower down the totem pole, coming up with new ideas and resources that keep a business succeeding. If you’re running a business, part of your job is recognising these people and giving them the attention they need.

As an example, take Japanese gaming giant Nintendo. When they were first starting out, they actually created playing cards. Employee Gunpei Yokio observed a fellow commuter on a train playing with a portable LCD calculator. From this observation the Game and Watch was born, meaning Nintendo was then brought into the age of electronic gaming. With this, they then went on to become one of the most successful gaming companies to date.

As you can see from that example, thought leadership can come from anywhere. It’s not about the education a person has had, but more about their experiences, and their ability to think outside of the box.

Building Brand Affinity With Thought Leadership

As a brand, you can use thought leadership to build brand affinity with your audience. When you look around, you’ll see there are lots of brands who’ve used their thought leaders to show audiences why they’re different, and why they’re offering the customer something they just can’t get anywhere else.

One of the most famous examples is Steve Jobs. As CEO of Apple, he was responsible for ushering in the age of smart phones. The initial iPhone was something that most cell phone customers had never seen before. The introduction of a touch screen and ‘apps’ meant that users had a phone experience that they’d never had before.

Of course, you now know that smart phones took off in a massive way after the launch of the iPhone. Apple weren’t the first to create smart phones, but they were the ones who managed to market them in a way that showed customers that they needed one. Now, no one could imagine living their lives without a smart phone.

This shows just how much influence a thought leader can have on a business. Apple has never been the same since they launched their phone. Nowadays, people know them more for their phones than they ever have for their computers.

Having the right thought leader on board at the right time can totally launch your business in a different direction entirely. You have to trust them to have the ideas that customers want to see, and that can be worrying for most business owners. Place that trust in them though, and you will be rewarded.

Can You Be A Thought Leader?

Now that you know what a thought leader is, could you be one yourself? Many are put off as they feel that they need specific degrees or qualifications in order to be considered an expert in their field. Let’s be honest though, this is rarely the case. It really is experience that leads the way here, not where you went to school.

It’s easier to become a thought leader if you’ve already created a product or concept that has seen success. If your ideas have borne fruit, then you already have ideas that are proven to work. If you can keep going on your thought process and keep making products that work, then you are a thought leader.

Felicia C. Wallace, a team leader with Best Australian Writers, found the concept of thought leadership for herself. “I created new and unique ways for my team to work together, as far as my workplace is concerned” she said. “This included remote work, something that hadn’t been tried before. I had faith it would succeed, and it did because I knew my team and their needs.” Because of this, Felicia herself became a thought leader as her ideas lead to success for her team and business.

A lot of thought leadership really relies on you having the confidence to make it happen. If you think you have something that can move your industry forward, or an idea for a product that others need, then you can be a thought leader. It’s all about what you do, rather than where you’ve been.

Connecting With Others As A Thought Leader

A true thought leader is always looking to connect with others in their field. That’s not just with others in the business, but those who follow your brand too.

If you really want to be a thought leader, you’ve got to work with the mindset that you’re sharing what you do with others. This can help your brand immeasurably, as if your followers are seeing you’re sharing your process with them, they’ll feel more involved in it.

In many cases, they can even contribute to your work. Good research can be done into what your audience wants, if you interact with them consistently. Social media is a great tool for this, as you can get up to date feedback on your work, and really see what your audience is looking for from you. With this, you can then make adjustments to projects as needed. When the completed project is shown to your audience, they’re sure to get a lot more out of it.

This is why many thought leaders choose to connect with their audiences through content marketing. This gives them consistent contact with their audience, and keeps up engagement. A good social media and content creation strategy can make life as a thought leader much easier.

Creating Content

Okay, so you need to create content in order to reach out to others. What kind of content should you be making?

Start by answering questions that your audience has about your industry. If you’re a thought leader, you’ll have ideas about how to change things, and how to improve things. If you can answer the questions readers have, you’re off to a good start.

Once you’ve built an audience, you can start sharing other ideas with them. Make it a two way discussion. This is often done by enabling comments on blog posts, or engaging with them on social media. With this input you can start refining your ideas and tweaking them to suit the audience. The Huffington Post recommends writing services to help you, if you need it.

When you’re creating content, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you must give a differing opinion, all of the time. Sometimes, that just isn’t possible. It’s perfectly fine to say that a certain idea is working well, if that’s what you think.

What You Need To Be A Thought Leader

If you think you could be a thought leader, there’s a few qualities and life qualifications you’ll need in order to be one. Here’s a short list of what you’ll need:

Experience in your field: Someone who’s brand new to your industry won’t know as much as someone who’s worked hard in it for years. That doesn’t mean that a new person can’t have excellent ideas, but you’ll ideally have spent a few years in the industry, and really understand it inside and out.

Ideas that will engage your audience: Of course, any good thought leader will have come up with ideas that could possibly turn the industry on its head. You should be able to brainstorm ideas and come up with concepts that can benefit your business.

Confidence: A huge part of thought leadership is confidence. It’s not enough to have great ideas, you need to be able to put them forward. It’s not just to your team or your business though, but to your clients and customers. You need to be able to tell anyone why they should listen to you.

Approachability: Any good thought leader should be someone that anyone can approach. You know that your ideas won’t grow and flourish on your own, and that’s why you’re always looking to work with others. You should make it easy for others to get in touch and work with you.

A doer, rather than a thinker: The true thought leader is someone who will take action, rather than just talking about it. It’s not enough to have great ideas, you’ve got to be able to put them to work.

The Risks Of Thought Leadership

Of course, with any concept there are always going to be risks. As a thought leader, you’re going to be in the spotlight. You need to be able to step up and say “I think my ideas are the ones that will work”, even if you take some derision for it at first. You certainly do need a thick skin to be able to cope with this.

Robert R. Chisholm, who works with Top Canadian Writers, experienced this when he used this approach with his team. “It was certainly nerve-wracking to stand up and say ‘These are my ideas and here’s why we should follow them through’. I thought my team would outright reject them. However, I found that instead they were eager for a new challenge.”

As well as this, there’s the risks you’ll take with your audience. In some industries, having a controversial viewpoint could harm you rather than show you as a leader. This doesn’t mean that you can’t say something can be done better, if you think it can be. You’ll just have to approach it more carefully.

Of course, there’s also the risk of being so public in what you do. If you’re sharing what you’re doing with others, they’ll see when you fail as when as when you succeed. You’ve got to have a thick skin, because this will happen at some point. You’ll also need a plan for when this happens. No one succeeds 100% of the time, so you’ve got to show your followers how you’re learning from this, and how it’s going to inform your work going forward.

The risks are there, but for someone with ambition you can work your way around them. Like most things, it’s all about how you handle the challenges. In some cases, you can even turn them into successes.

The Benefits Of Thought Leadership

So a lot has been covered here about thought leadership, but what are the benefits to it? Here are a few you should consider:

It feeds PR opportunities: The more you put yourself out there, the more opportunities you can take advantage of. For example, you can start doing more talks a conferences, or getting in touch with up and coming talents from schools and universities. The more you put yourself out there, the more you’ll get back from others.

It fuels content creation: Content creation is king these days, and that means if you want to get noticed, you need to be putting out unique content. Thought leadership leads to creative and interesting content that gets people talking. If you can ride that wave, your ideas will get more publicity, as well as your brand as a whole.

You can build credibility and trust: If you keep sharing accurate information with others, they’ll come to trust you. This can be incredibly helpful down the line, as you look to put your ideas into motion and create something new. Others will be much willing to work with you, and you’ll be seen as a credible source.

Giving more can engage more: As a thought leader, you’ll be giving a lot of yourself away. This includes giving away ideas in blogs and so forth, but also in free materials such as eBooks. The more you do this, the more you’ll be seen as a leading thinker in your industry.

Becoming A Thought Leader

If you want to become a thought leader, it’s going to take hard work and effort. Remember, they’re considered experts in their field, so you’ll need to put in the hours to create something that excels. However, remember that doing so gains you exposure for your ideas, and with that comes new opportunities. As this is the case, it’s well worth looking to get your ideas noticed.

To get started, you’ll need to start networking, either online or in person, and show people what you’ve got. This will be easier if you put social media to good use. You can start connecting with your audience, and showing them what you’ve got.

This networking will then help you reach out to others in the industry, and turn your ideas into reality. The sooner you can do this, the better. Once you get your name out there, you can really make a difference.

As you can see, there’s a lot more to thought leadership than you’d think. It’s not just about creating new ideas, it’s about implementing them. It’s about finding your audience and giving them what they need. When you do that, you can start building a following that will benefit you further down the line.

If you’re someone who has ideas and feels as though you can make a difference, then you can become a thought leader. It’ll take a lot of work, and you’ll need to give a lot of yourself away, but you can do it. It’s great if you have a team behind you who believes in what you do, as they can help you spread the word.

Whatever you do, you can make a difference as a thought leader. Use this guide to get started, and really start making a name for yourself in your chosen industry.

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