Henry Ward Beecher, a Congregationalist clergyman, was one of the first individuals to be identified in writing as a thought leader in 1887. It is a term that has been used for more than a hundred years, often used in reference to another instead of as a self-descriptor. Today “thought leader” or “thought leadership” can be seen in job description, company mission statements and sprinkled in resumes. What is thought leadership exactly? More importantly, what does it mean to truly be a thought leader and how can you become one?
Thought Leadership Defined
There are a few generally accepted definitions of what a thought leader is. Simply put, Oxford dictionary defines thought leader/thought leadership as, “Intellectual influence; innovative or pioneering thinking.”
Jake Dunlap, CEO and founder of Skaled defines it this way, “thought leaders are seen as trustworthy, go-to authorities among industry colleagues and peers.”
Another industry expert, Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of Strategy & Business magazine provided this definition, “A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”
Today, many have refined the definition even more, “an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.”
The variety of definitions has lead to an overuse of the descriptor in some circles, and due to many using it to self-describe hearing the term “thought leader” makes many weary. Becoming a thought leader or finding a thought leader is important when it is time to grow your business.
Reality for Thought Leaders
Thought leaders, in their truest form are individuals who are seen as experts at what they do AND are able innovatively close gaps they see in the industry by blending different tools and insights from other industries. Essentially making a hybrid solution to solve an industry specific problem.
There are some steps that can be taken for those w
anting to embark on the thought leader journey.
- Immersion in the industry – attending trade shows, conferences as both an attendee and a speaker.
- Continued education – this doesn’t have to be traditional education, actually self-learning and discovery will prove to be more beneficial. Remember thought leaderships requires innovation. Innovation doesn’t come from doing what everyone else is doing.
- Write – web content, books, white papers, presentations, blogs. Do it frequently and make sure that the audience is targeted.
- Know where you stand – take some time and understand your perspective on key issues within the industry. Being controversial is expected of thought leadership, be able to communicate your philosophy, theories and concepts concisely.
Mentorship or Coaching Required
Becoming a thought leader is not an easy path and should not be attempted by fainted hearted professionals. Being able to embrace the true spirit of being entrepreneurial, in that you are creating something new, often on your own. A strong sense of commitment and follow through are required, because there will come a point where abandoning the mission will be an easier pathway.
Easier because feelings of alienation can be consuming. Great thinkers, true thought leaders such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Albert Einstein were outcasts until their conviction and proof won others in their industry over. Today there are business coaches, whose mission is to support true thought leaders, not just in navigating the industry waters but creating a community of support. Can it be done without one? Yes. Is it quicker, more rewarding and beneficial to have a business coach, absolutely.