Thought Leaders. Social Media Influencers. Growth Hackers. Wherever we turn, business leaders and consumers alike are faced with new emerging trends and buzzwords claiming expert notions. But what does it all really mean?
The term ‘thought leaders’, especially, has been garnering attention as an important movement for brand leaders to understand and embrace. More than just a corporate catchphrase, ‘thought leaders’ are individuals who have established themselves within their respective industries as go-to, trusted authorities. Thought leaders aren’t merely contributing to the important conversations happening today — they are leading them, offering intelligent insights to their colleagues, competitors and customers. A true thought leader will be able to readily identify trends before they happen, setting the pace for their industry. In fact, according to a 2016 survey by The Economist Group, at least 7 out of 10 executives will be more inclined to do business with organizations that are perceived as thought leaders.
So the question becomes, what makes a thought leader? What separates a true thought leader from any CEO or Entrepreneur? What style of thinking supports the thought leadership movement?
Cutting Through the Noise
It’s important to understand that thought leaders are people, not companies or accolades. In fact, being a thought leader has very little to do with your title and official qualifications, and far more to do with your ability to disrupt your industry with a quality message. It’s no secret, the marketing landscape across almost every industry today is incredible competitive, rife with brands both big and small eager to earn their seat at the table. Think of this competition as ‘noise’, the many voices and personalities edging their way to the forefront of the pack. Those who will find their stride at the crux of this race, and maintain it, are those thought leaders who break through the noise by consistently dismantling current practices to come up with better ones.
Thought Leadership is Earned, Not Given
It’s also imperative to realize that thought leader isn’t a title you can simply bestow upon yourself — it’s a title you earn. It’s an evolving role that requires provocative, inspiring and actionable insights that can truly bring value to a community and industry. Of course, you cannot be a thought leader if others don’t follow, so thought leadership poses an interesting risk in its demand for both new, disruptive ideas and wide-spread adoption and recognition.
Thought Leadership is a 24/7 Job
Another misconception that often embeds itself in eager executives’ understanding of thought leadership culture, is that publishing a few articles (whether on a company site, LinkedIn Pulse, or trade publications) is enough. With a one or two-time investment of good content, you can become a bona fide thought leader, right?
The most successful thought leaders to date are individuals who were undeniably committed in their continued delivery of content. They didn’t put out on piece of content expecting to then sit back and reap the rewards — rather, they put out insightful, relevant content on regular (at least weekly) basis. Why? Because the foundation of thought leadership is, quite simply, consistency. Consistency of great content is what will raise your voice a pitch above all that other industry noise, it’s what will merit attention to your work and, more importantly, keep that attention fixed on you.
Quantity, But Also Quality
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can produce content on ‘auto pilot’ — you need to have a plan for your content development that includes short, medium and long-form content that is true to your corporate identity, individual style and story. This requires the cultivation of ideas wherever they might appear; in a meeting with colleagues, from an article, conversations at an event, a client case study, etc. It doesn’t matter where those ideas come from, as long as you possess the ability to recognize them and use them as fuel to generate content that can continuously lead your industry’s conversation.
And perhaps most important of all, a true thought leader is patient. After all, thought leadership is not a process which can be bought or forced, and it’s certainly not a quick fix. Rather, becoming a thought leader requires long-term effort for long-term reward with fluctuating measures of success. This process might not be for everyone, but really, if it were easy to be a thought leader, those individuals wouldn’t be deemed as so valuable, now would they?