We think, decide, and act every day. How do you make them matter?
We are extraordinarily well-versed in thinking, but what makes someone’s thoughts leadership-quality? Why are some sources of opinions more authoritative than others? Which is more important: the idea or the person?
While it is impossible to definitely answer these - and a good amount of literature exists discussing these topics - we can explore how to make you and your ideas stand out among your peers: how to become a thought leader. And perhaps, along the way, we can find some potential answers.
Defining Thought Leadership
Contemporary definitions of thought leadership are typically criticised as “meaningless management speak” because there is no clearly accepted definition. Furthermore, a thought leader is often seen as something someone just is rather than something to become; a status rather than a goal.
A good working definition is
“a thought leader is a person whose expressed thoughts positively influence others in their field to do better and think smarter.”
Creating a compelling definition is the relatively easy part, it is the action formation that is difficult. It is incredibly tough to stimulate deliberate thinking that leads to learning, creativity, proposition, action and recognition (in that order).
So when are you actually a thought leader? How do you know? And what can you do to get there? I suggest these 3 simple steps.
The Three Steps
1) Ask yourself: am I a thought leader?
And that is okay because of the mentioned criticisms towards the term. In fact, you shouldn't want to become a thought leader per se.
2) Discard your aspirations to become a thought leader.
Let me be clear: do NOT aim to become a thought leader.
3) Aim to make a difference…
And become a ‘thought leader’ along the way.
Making a Difference
Large differences such as impacting a field, shifting cultures and creating change are difficult to achieve. But the starting steps for making a difference are conceptually easier to visualise and appear more accessible than the ethereal concept of ‘thought leadership’.
This is the crux of my motivation to make a difference instead of becoming a thought leader: it is something we already conceptually understand.
Do not aim to be “the best” or the most authoritative or a dictatorial leader. Rather create solutions (and opinions about them) that make a difference to your field.
To make a difference be proactive.
Further, create something with which people can see and interact. Finally, tell as many people as you can what you have done, why you have done it, and where you think your field is moving.
We infer what people think by what they do and how they react. What this means in a business setting is that you should minimise people’s inferences by informing them how they should perceive your actions and creations.
Perform an action, create content around it, and influence how it should be received.
Some More Practical Steps
Pragmatically, you can start making a difference by creating online written posts, publicising your visual presentations, and performing public speeches.
An important, yet often neglected, component of thought leadership is providing feedback on others’ pieces and works. This is a simple way to provide an opinion that is also valued by the creator. Join the community either through membership of an explicit group or by publishing and interacting with peers.
It has been shown that in a group setting being friendly is more important than being clever in getting results. And being receptive to feedback is more important than being right. Create and interact, doing it pleasantly and consistently.
You can only be a leader if you are known. Creators are leaders because creations are an initiative to decide what people consume.
Indeed, a creation can be entirely innovative or may be an attractive amalgamation of existing constructs thoughtfully and deliberately constructed: think the iPhone.
An example is a PhD degree. Either it can be novel (and typically interesting) research or it can be a rephrasing of a topic in an understandable, digestible manner that impacts the field. In either case, it needs to impact the field.
You do not have to enrol for a PhD to make a difference. Trust, authority, then impact are (usually) earned by basing your opinions on fact. Find a fact and create an opinion around it. Formulate an idea and share it.
Presentation and Perseverance
How you present an idea is often as important as the idea itself. A powerful marketing campaign can be more influential than a thought-provoking idea. Place your efforts on making a difference through ideas and action; then be proud to present them.
Large determinants of success are luck and perseverance rather than skill and brilliance. Consistently create great pieces of work that posit positive solutions and allow fertile engagement.
Find something that you are passionate about, focus on presenting it in an intuitive, understandable, and engrossing way. Then persevere, experiment, and interact to ensure what you put out there is relevant, resilient, authoritative, and trusted.