During a recent business meeting, a potential client told me he wanted help in becoming a thought leader. I struggled hard to maintain a neutral face and hold back on the eye rolling. Thought leadership, like storytelling, has become a corporate buzzword. There is no question that establishing yourself as an authority in your industry can help you build the visibility and credibility that can make you and your company the first call when a customer has a need.
The Thought Leadership Trap
My prospective client wasn’t wrong in wanting to establish himself as a thought leader. I define thought leadership as the ability to provide provocative insights about and useful solutions to the challenges we face in our lives. It should be a part of every marketing and communications strategy. But here’s the rub: to be a thought leader, you have to have thoughts that matter. Far too many think that all they have to do is blast some content through their social media channels, do some speaking engagements or start a podcast, and—voila—they will be a thought leader.
You Have to Earn Your Leadership Position
Thought leadership is about more than sharing expertise. It’s about building trust and credibility. Thought leadership isn’t about you; it’s about the impact you have on others – how your wisdom and insights help others improve their condition. It’s about answering their questions, getting them to think about something in a new way and offering a tool or insight that helps them move closer to achieving their own goal. And you have to do it over and over again.
What It Takes
1. Be surprising, provocative and controversial. You don’t necessarily have to be original, but you have to present your ideas in original ways. Seth Godin did this with his book that launched him as a thought leader. In “Purple Cow,” Godin stood the 4 P’s marketing paradigm Product, Price, Promotion and Place on its ear. He added a fifth P, the Purple Cow, which is essentially about becoming remarkable by standing out and being perplexing, memorable and worth talking about. Being different isn’t at all a new strategy. Apple did it back in 1984 with its Think Different campaign. But Godin’s Purple Cow offered a new way to think about differentiation. For it’s time, it was controversial—and highly effective. Starbucks did it more recently when it transformed coffee from a drink to a community experience.
2. Be relevant and useful. Having a good idea is only the first part of the thought leadership equation. The other part is in giving it to your audience so it is meaningful to their work and lives. You can stand on Mount Olympus and spew all the words you want. But you have to explicitly help your followers connect what you’re saying to how it might benefit them. If the person that you’re talking to doesn’t see the relevance to them, what’s the point? Lolly Daskal, Simon Sinek, Brene Brown, Gary Vaynerchuk, Seth Godin and Don Miller are paid handsomely for their observations and advice because they help people and companies become better versions of themselves.
3. Know who your audience is and what they want. Stop and think: Who do I want to lead with my thoughts? Who could really use what I have to say and why it is valuable specifically to them and not someone else? If you aren’t clear about the answers to these questions, stop. You aren’t ready to lead if you don’t know who you want to lead.
4. Be authentic. Be true to who you are and what you know. Amy Porterfield is a thought leader in online marketing. She shares her personal story about how she got to this point including some of her frustrations and challenges. Understanding how she got to where she is and that it was a struggle makes her human. Add to that that, all of her content is focused on taking what she has learned and helping others. And she doesn’t try to be something she isn’t.
5. Be honest. Always tell the truth. Don’t weigh in on subjects you really don’t know much about. And don’t steal other people’s content. Mention and share ideas from others, but always credit them.
6. Prepare to be disliked. If you are putting out provocative and interesting content, there will be those who will disagree, sometimes vehemently. As a Washington Post editor once told me, “If we aren’t making some people mad, we aren’t doing our job.” Disagreement comes with the territory. If the prospect of negative comments scares you, don’t step into the thought leadership ring.
7. Please don’t declare yourself a thought leader. That is up to others to decide and affirm.
Being a thought leader is not for the faint of heart or the super-impatient. You must be consistent and share your ideas and insights often. You have to care about your message so much that you welcome the scorn of those who publicly disagree with you. And, most importantly, you must maintain a mindset that you are in it to help and serve others. If you do, the rewards can be great in moving others who will, indeed, come to proclaim you a thought leader.
Want more tips on how you can clarify your message and communicate your value? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @lizwainger.