Want to Be a Thought Leader? 5 Ways to Get Your Voice Out There

March 30, 2017


Thought leaders are like a wakeup call from the future; they change the way we think and do things, shoving tradition aside.

Take, for example, entrepreneur and marketer Seth Godin, who writes about marketing in the digital age with a fresh and sometimes jarring perspective. Like this TED talk where he describes the connection economy in terms of stealing ideas and making them better: “The connection economy rewards coordination, sharing and trust. All three of which are built on our species’ unique ability to steal ideas.”

Thought leaders, like Godin, are those who identify and articulate trends before they start to take hold. They have the foresight to envision where their industry is going, rather than the hindsight to understand where it is or has been. They blaze the trail to whatever comes next.

Indeed, thought leadership has become so lauded that some understand it as a new strategy for corporate growth. Because thought leadership usually happens in “public”, this also means there’s a shift from keeping things behind closed doors, to sharing and collaboration, and transparency.

This all means that thought leaders become public personalities—hubs around whom the new economy is forming.

So what makes a thought leader? How can you become one? Here are five keys:

1. Thought Leaders Possess Proven a Track Record

You can’t simply declare yourself a thought leader and go from there. You must be recognized by others. Do people constantly seek you out for advice or mentoring? That’s a good sign that you have the “secret sauce” of being a thought leader.

Odds are the reason people come to you is because you have the experience in your field and a proven track record that makes your advice more informed than others.

For a small business owner, this may start with putting testimonials or the philosophy of your approach front and centre of your website. Rise above the product you’re selling and brand an idea, philosophy or unique approach and then shine a light on that.

It’s not enough to have walked the walk, you need to show proof of it. Unpack and articulate the experience and insights that underpin your approach. Then you can move on to preaching it to others.



2. Thought Leaders Are Disruptive Innovators

Thought leaders don’t just follow established learnings. They climb the ladder and then kick it away, often finding contrary or counter-intuitive ways to approach problems that shake up the status quo. They’re brazen and willing to fail. And they will gladly face naysayers.

As an entrepreneur, you have to have a willingness to change the conversation as a “constructive disruptor”. Ask “why” questions rather than coasting along following the established approach. Pull in learnings or approaches from other disciplines to see if you strike on something innovative. Embrace a fail-fast approach.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is a great example of someone who has taken our traditional notions and revolutionized the auto industry and so much more. Musk just ignores the establishment, whether it’s the automotive industry or space travel. He’ll even take advice from a nine-year old.

The common thread here is to have no foregone conclusions, to refuse to blindly follow any established thinking. Thought leaders are open at all times and often won’t accept “you just can’t do that” safe thinking.

3. Thought Leaders Communicate Their Ideas to the World

Thought leaders often become as, or even more, recognizable than the brands or products they produce. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are good examples. One of the reasons they’ve achieved this profile is because they’re very public figures.

Being a thought leader is about so much more than thinking. It’s really about communicating.

Being a thought leader is about so much more than thinking. It’s really about communicating.

You’ve got to cut through the “noise” and offer something really worth listening to. Thought leaders used to focus on getting published in trade magazines and speaking at industry events, but now blogs, Medium, social media, etc. have lowered all the barriers to entry. Seth Godin blogs daily, for example.

The immediacy, reach and intimacy of publishing online and connecting with likeminded individuals is fundamental to thought leadership today. You have to plan out your own unique “strategic visibility” and make it happen.

With the sheer volume of new material online every single day, you need to be distinctive and memorable; find your own voice and use it. Test out different theories on what might give you some traction and readership, tweak and refine. Personal branding takes as much time and effort as branding a business, and it’s just as important.

Thought leaders also get published, invited to speak and asked to consult with others and even teach. The key here is to be out in the world (real and virtual). So, hone those presentation skills and start speaking at events. Start small with local meet-ups, community colleges, Google+ hangouts to build your speaker’s portfolio and track record. Offer to participate on discussion panels or lead workshops. Next, approach industry events and conferences for those invitation-only spots. Build, build, build…

4. Thought Leaders Make a Commitment to Learning

Thought leaders never stop looking for ways to grow and expand. They don’t limit themselves to their own field either, often wearing lots of business hats. Musk heads up automotive innovation, space travel and the colonization of Mars. Richard Branson began with a record label and expanded his businesses to include a train company, a luxury game preserve, a mobile phone company and a space-tourism company.

In being so open to learning, thought leaders are also open to failure. When you learn and innovate, you take calculated risks. But you learn from your mistakes, and you learn from others.

Thought leaders are open-minded, open to taking ideas from different sources, often juxtaposing seemingly dissonant things. Consider two-Michelen-starred chef Alex Atala (featured in Season 2 of Chef’s Table)—known for transforming traditional Brazilian dishes by adapting French and Italian culinary techniques to native Brazilian ingredients, including ants.

5. Thought Leaders Actually Want to Make a Difference

Finally, thought leaders want to impact the world. While some lose their way over time, most start out with noble ideas about building a world that’s better. If you’re in business to make a solid living, turn a profit, grow steadily over time, perhaps thought leadership is not for you.

If, however, your company has a mission and a vision for the future that’s bigger than the product you build, you are likely a thought leader. Are you making cars or positively impacting environment and infrastructure? Are you designing brand identities or trying to change the relationship consumers have with products?

Everlane makes t-shirts, but the company is also trying to change the way that we as consumers approach purchases. From their website:
“We constantly challenge the status quo. Nothing is worse than complacency, and as a brand our culture is to dissect every single decision we make at every level of the company. We know our customers are also rule breakers and questioners, so we hope this philosophy is palpable in the products and choices we make. And by all means, challenge us too.”

Take a moment and step back from the actual work that you do. Ask yourself what change you’re trying to affect? What’s your mission and brand vision? Being a thought leader isn’t about having a job. It’s about having a calling.


about the author

Freelance Contributor Karen Hawthorne worked for six years as a digital editor for the National Post, contributing articles on business, food, culture and travel for affiliated newspapers across Canada. She now writes from her home office in Toronto as a freelancer, and takes breaks to bounce with her son on the backyard trampoline. Connect with her on LinkedIn.