I am an extremely competitive person.
When I played hockey growing up, I didn’t just want to have fun — I wanted to make it to the NHL and win the Stanley Cup.
When I started playing World of Warcraft as a 14 year old, I didn’t just want to kill hours in front of my computer — I wanted to become one of the greatest World of Warcraft players to ever live (and I did. When I was 17, I was one of the highest ranked players in North America).
When I got into bodybuilding, I didn’t just want to get fit — I wanted to lift heavy, get shredded, compete, and build a career there (and I did, up until the moment I realized I would need to take steroids to turn pro, and I quit).
And when I decided I wanted to pursue my interests in writing and entrepreneurship, I spent four years working for a mentor figure, learned everything I could, and invested heavily into building my own personal brand online. I became a 3x Top Writer on Quora with over 20M views, I had dozens of answers go viral, I had work appear in every major publication on the Internet, and I started ghostwriting for wildly successful entrepreneurs, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, keynote speakers, and more.
When I decided I was ready to dive head-first into entrepreneurship, I started my own thought leadership and writing agency called Digital Press.
Being a CEO does not make you a thought leader.
Since I am in the business of helping CEOs and serial entrepreneurs build their influence online through written content, I have become hyper-aware of what it truly means to be a thought leader.
When I first stepped into the business world, young, wide-eyed, and inexperienced, I won’t lie, I expected to meet lots of brilliant people. I thought that anyone who held the title of “CEO” really knew their stuff. I thought that’s how you earned that title, after all.
What I have since learned is just how few serial entrepreneurs and CEOs actually have what it takes to be a real thought leader.
Because here’s what the business world has misinterpreted the term “thought leader” to mean: “I have been featured in Forbes, so I’m a thought leader.”
No. No, you’re not.
You paid for press. That doesn’t make you a thought leader.
This is what makes you a thought leader.
What makes you a thought leader is having the cojones to say what nobody else is willing to say.
What makes you a thought leader is taking the time to think about a beaten-to-death topic long enough to provide a different, deeper perspective than everyone else — and to not parrot the same industry cliches over and over again.
What makes you a thought leader is having a voice of your own, and wielding it in a way that attracts an audience organically.
I hate to be that 28-year-old Millennial, but I’m a little disappointed with how many people walk around parading their self-appointed titles, calling themselves thought leaders because they have a bunch of logos on their website.
You can buy those. All of them. Spend the money, hire a PR firm, and they’ll get you all the plastic credibility you could ever want.
Do you know where my “logos” come from? They come from the fact that I have written several thousand pieces of content on the Internet. My logos come from my voice, my pen, my thoughts, my insight, my perspectives — which major publications (that you paid to get in) republished willingly.
Now, seeing as I have a ghostwriting agency and all, I should note that I am not interested in giving my voice to someone else, for example. What we do is we work with CEOs who don’t have the time or the writing skills to share their insight with the world, and turn it into writing that will resonate with readers on the Internet. But it’s still their thoughts, their perspectives.
However, if you’re a client of mine, I am going to challenge you. I am going to keep asking you questions until you get to “the good stuff,” the insight that is very specific, rooted in experience, and worth reading in the first place. And then I’m going to help you write it. The world does not need more “you just have to hustle” advice.
That’s a neon sign that you’re not much of a thought leader at all.
Being a thought leader means saying something new — not something publicly accepted.
Want to know what’s not hard?
Walking into a room and saying what everyone already wants to hear.
My mentor used to tell me that if he ever shared a new advertising campaign idea with his business partner, and his partner said, “Sure, love it,” then the idea wasn’t good enough. If the idea is accepted right from the get-go, then it’s not pushing the envelope. Because anything new and groundbreaking shouldn’t be accepted right away. It should raise eyebrows. People should tell you that it won’t work. That’s how you know it’s an idea worth pursuing.
Thought leadership is no different.
If you truly want to be a thought leader in your industry, the title of “CEO” is not enough. Having someone else talk about how great you are isn’t enough. Spending big budgets on advertising campaigns that put your name everywhere isn’t enough.
It’s like we used to say in the World of Warcraft: “Just because you’re a Gladiator doesn’t mean you’re actually a top-quality player.”
Like I said, I’m extremely competitive.
And since creative writing and entrepreneurship seems like it’s going to be my area of focus for the next decade, I want to be the one to raise the bar.
If you’re such a thought leader, why don’t you say something new?
Anyone can be a thought leader. You just have to pull from personal experience.
I do not say all of this with the intention of putting other people down.
On the contrary.
If you’ve built a successful company, I want to learn from you. If you’ve built effective and efficient teams, I want to know how. If you invested in a company long before anyone else believed in it, I want to know what sparked that decision.
All I’m asking is that you get more specific than saying something boring like, “I saw a need in the market.”
I want to know what you were thinking, what you were feeling, what was going on in your life at the time. I want to know your fears, what made you hesitate and then pull the trigger. I want to know your ups and downs, your trials and tribulations. I want to know about the time you “almost gave up,” and decided to push forward instead. And I want you to be real the entire time. I want you to show me what makes you human — and then share the larger lesson that can be applied to everyday life.
That’s what makes you a thought leader, is saying something that even you wonder, “What will people think if I share that?”
So, what does the world need to hear, that maybe you’re a bit hesitant to talk about?
Then you’ll be a real thought leader.