Thought Leadership: What It Means, Why It Matters, And 4 Traits Shared By Those Who Do It Well
Thought leadership is simpler than most people realize.
In its most basic sense, becoming a thought leader means participating in industry conversations (as well as starting new ones) by offering your experience-based perspectives on a regular basis. It's about sharing stories and insights you’ve learned from years in the trenches. And it’s doing so consistently over time—until it becomes abundantly clear you’ve walked the walk and you know what you’re talking about.
Unfortunately, people do thought leadership a disservice by romanticizing the definition.
To some, being a thought leader means being the only “big voice” in an industry—the person who’s always dictating the future or constantly presenting ground-breaking, disruptive ideas. Someone like that might be considered a thought leader, but that’s not the definition of thought leadership—especially when every other person is striving to “disrupt” their own industry.
Being a thought leader is simply being a leader within your industry, not the leader of your industry.
It’s making your voice heard, sharing what you know, and offering your unique perspectives over the long-term. How that's manifested might differ between industries, but the principle stays the same.
In the context of what we do at my company, positioning founders and C-suite executives as industry thought leaders is best manifested through long-form writing. Reason being: it’s the business world. Even if the person we’re working with is in tech, healthcare, retail, or recruiting, the written word works better than anything else because company leaders are able to point to their library of published work to show they’ve walked the walk.
All it takes is picking a platform—LinkedIn, Quora, or a column at a publication, such as Forbes or Inc.—and making a commitment to share value-add articles on a regular basis over time.
The business realm is entirely different than the art space, for example. A visionary in that world likely won’t become a thought leader via the written word. Unlike the business world, art is primarily visual and/or auditory, so platforms like Instagram and YouTube would make more sense.
Yet, regardless of the industry, the same thought leadership principle stands:
Share what you know consistently over the long-term. Don’t be promotional, articulate your vision, and speak from real-life experiences.
That’s how you position yourself as desirable to work with, work for, or invest in. That’s how you stand out. And if that isn’t a goal of yours, it’s going to become increasingly hard to be noticed at all.
Adding unique features to your product offering or changing up your terms of service aren't enough to differentiate yourself anymore.
Having a unique offering or implementing innovative technology doesn’t make your business any more desirable or trustworthy. You have to go beyond tech upgrades to elevate your business above the person next to you.
That’s where sharing what you know comes into play.
Imagine you’re in the market for a SaaS product that analyzes sales calls and relays insights about your pitch to help you close more deals. You come across three different companies that offer similar products and need to decide which one to do business with.
Of those three companies, one stands out to you—and it’s because the founder is everywhere online. He has written dozens of articles about SaaS, shared his experiences from being on over 10,000 sales calls in his life, and has given a TED Talk on the importance of creating an emotional connection with prospects. He’s also constantly commenting on industry happenings, chatting new strategies on how to effectively close more deals, talks about what he’s learned from years of experience on industry podcasts—the whole nine yards.
Comparing the three companies, wouldn’t seeing an active founder make you think, “Wow, this person is really dedicated and passionate about what they do?” For most people, that’s enough to get move them down the pipeline to ‘Closed Won’.
In reality, all that founder did was share his personal experiences on a regular basis, over a period of time. Clearly, he is an industry thought leader. But more importantly, he's the person you decided to trust—and ultimately give your business to—because he stood out.
In an age where trust seems to matter more than anything else, consistently sharing insights and adding value is what gives people a reason to work with you, buy from you, and invest in you.
Honestly, a lot of people struggle with the best way to go about this. So after working with more than 100 founders and C-level executives, here are four commonalities I've witnessed among real industry thought leaders:
Thought leadership—and leadership in general—begins with being self-aware.
Consistently coming up with ideas and topics worth sharing requires much more than industry knowledge. Many people know a tremendous amount and have accomplished really impressive things, but they have no idea how to connect with people at scale. Being able to write is one thing. Being able to articulate ideas so that they resonate is entirely different. A lot of the time, their content ends up being surface-level or promotional and doesn’t resonate.
It requires a certain self-awareness to understand what's interesting versus what's not, what people want to know versus what they don’t, and how to convey it all well enough that people actually read it, learn from it, share it, and (eventually) look to you as an industry leader for it.
In this context, curiosity is synonymous with a desire to be informed. Thought leaders want to know what’s going on in their industries—and even other industries that might affect them.
Being informed—about news events, major acquisitions, companies that go under, regulations affecting an industry—is the primary differentiator between a successful thought leader who offers real value and a self-proclaimed thought leader who promotes surface-level content.
Of course, the goal isn’t to be a reporter. But thought leaders always know the context of their industries in regard to the content they're sharing.
Thought leaders who stand out the most are confident. But that doesn’t just mean flaunting their expertise. Actually, it’s quite the opposite.
Confident thought leaders are willing to share experiences and emotions most people don't feel comfortable sharing on the internet (where it will inevitably live forever). It means being a little vulnerable and open. They're OK sharing not just the things that make them look great but lessons learned from mistakes and failures too.
It’s no coincidence that’s what performs best online. It’s human—people relate to it.
The most prominent thought leaders have a long-term mindset.
Thought leadership is not something you do for two months. It’s something you do for two years—at a minimum. Having a long-term vision, thus, being patient and dedicated, is one of the most important traits successful thought leaders have in common.
Think of it in the same way Warren Buffet thinks about trading stocks: buy-and-hold, not day trading. Invest and over time the stock will pay dividends.
Getting 50 or 100 views on the first two articles you put out won’t matter as much when you’re consistently amassing views in the tens of thousands after regularly sharing content. If you trust the process and commit to being consistent, you reap greater benefits over time than are possible from programmatic advertising or PR.