The Four Evolutionary Stages of Thought Leadership

How leaders create ideas, spread them, and change the world.

Do you aspire to spread ideas that will stick around for generations, change lives, and alter the very fabric of society?

If so, according to Elizabeth Marshall, you might be the next thought leader.

Like Seth Godin.

Recently, Elizabeth Marshall was a guest on The Portfolio Life podcast hosted by best-selling author Jeff Goins.

Marshall has worked with the likes of Michael Port, Seth Godin, Howard Behar and more. She does consulting, conducts workshops, and has written the bestselling book The Contrarian Effect.

Over the course of the podcast, Marshall expounded upon what she deems to be four stages of thought leadership.

They are:

Stage 1 — Incubation

Stage 2 — Building

Stage 3 — Momentum

Stage 4 — Mastery

My purpose in this article is not to once-and-for-all define what a thought leader is (or even to prove if such a thing actually exists).

Instead, I will present the type of career arc one might expect should he or she have designs on becoming one.

I will describe each stage then give my analysis at the end.

Stage 1- Incubation

Incubation is all about the following three things.

During this stage, the prospective thought leader must realize that the call to thought leadership is a long-term venture. It’s serious. It’s a big commitment.

The thought leaders message will evolve over time, developing and deepening over many years.

The thought leader must be aware of the distinction between an expert and a thought leader. Experts are good at what they do. They may even write books, give keynotes, start successful companies and so on.

Where a thought leader differs is that he or she develops an evolutionary message over time. Growing influence and creating lasting change along the way.

Armed with this distinction, the thought leader must accept or reject the call.

Before venturing out and presenting it to his or her audience, the rising thought leader’s message must be clear. As much time as necessary must be spent in the Incubation stage on message refinement.

A clear message needs a well-defined audience. The thought leader’s ideas will not be for everyone. They must know with whom their message resonates and to whom they are sent.

Once these three criteria have been met, the thought leader is reading to move on Stage 2.

Stage 2 — Building

Now that the message has been honed and the audience clearly identified, the thought leader is ready to go public and start testing the message.

Some strategies are:

  • writing an eBook
  • conducting a workshop or webinar
  • giving a keynote

Delivering the message will enable the thought leader to do two things.

1. Grow the Audience

As the message is publicized, fans will gravitate to the thought leader. Marshall emphasizes the importance of focusing on QUALITY followers rather than QUANTITY. The primary goal is to gather true believers who will grow with the leader over the long-haul.

The best way to gather true believers is to build a quality, substantive message.

2. Further Shape Message

As hard as the thought leader might work in refining the message during Incubation, once exposed to the public, holes will emerge. Through interaction with people, the thought leader deduces what works and what doesn’t.

The appropriate tweaks are made.

Stage 3 — Momentum

This stage signals a huge shift. At this point, the thought leader has had a significant amount of success. So much so that they now have more incoming request than outgoing pitches.

Now having more opportunities than they ever dreamed, the new challenge for the thought leader is to stave off distraction and stay true to the original message.

Many of the open doors are financially lucrative and promise exposure to huge audiences.

However, many of these shiny objects are not in alignment with the message. Consequently, if the wrong opportunities are taken, the message will be diluted and the audience alienated.

Incidentally, Marshall identified Jeff Goins as being in this stage. Just having released his fifth book, Goins resonated with Marshall’s description of this stage as well as its challenges.

At one point, Goins pointed out that the Momentum stage is “a stressful place to be.”

This is so due to the conflict of not wanting to turn down people who have opened their doors to you, yet knowing you must only choose those opportunities right for your message and your audience.

Stage 4 — Mastery

At this point, the thought leader has been in the game a long time. She’s made her money and her message has reached the masses. Instead of seeking to broaden the audience, she must now seek to go deeper with key followers.

Marshall points to Seth Godin as a thought leader in the Mastery stage.

Goins observed that this must be why Godin no longer seeks to sell millions of copies of his books and speak to more and more people. Marshall concurred.

She also went on to express the need for the thought leader to keep the message fresh by applying its universal principles in a modern context. Different stories must be told, fresh examples used, sticky phrases and ideas framed in a new way.

Marshall pointed out that Godin now uses the core message of “Purple Cow” and “places a whole different frame on top of it to match our times.”

I was intrigued by the conversation between Goins and Marshall and gleaned several helpful principles.

Where I Agree with Marshall

Thought leadership is a long-haul process. To make a deep impact, one must stay in a domain long enough to experience personal transformation within it.

I also like how Marshall distinguished an expert from a thought leader. Not that one is better than the other, but it is helpful to know that thought leadership is not the same thing as being great at something.

Instead, it’s about developing a global view of the domain and how the interrelated concepts might be rearranged to create something new and innovative.

This is how complex problems are solved.

For example, both Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut were expert fiction writers. King keeps selling millions of copies, Vonnegut created the Six Main Stories theory. The former is an expert, the latter a thought leader.

While I benefited from Marshall’s ideas, there were a few that I found to be lacking.

Where I Disagree with Marshall

The Early Decision to Become a Thought Leader

Marshall suggests during the Incubation stage that the thought leader realizes what’s at stake and makes a conscious decision to take the lifelong journey. However, most thought leaders I know never made such a decision up front to be one.

Instead, I’ve had more than one thought leader look back over their career and say to me, “I still can’t believe I achieved all this. I sure didn’t envision it when I started. I would have achieved all this.”

This is not to suggest they accidentally fell into greatness. Quite the contrary.

Instead, they had their head down, they worked themselves to the bone, they developed their craft. Eventually, people began to recognize both their ability and their influence.

More times than not, thought leadership chooses the leader, not the other way around.

Waiting Until the “Building” Stage to Share the Message

Marshall mentions waiting until the audience and message have been decided upon before sharing it with the audience in the form of an eBook, workshop, etc. I

While I agree that a more perfected iteration of the message needs to be revealed at the Building stage, I must also point out that one of the main strategies for finding one’s message and audience is to connect with them through eBooks, blog posts, video, etc.

It would have been helpful for her Marshall to have made a distinction between the development of the message in the Incubation stage and the refining of the message after feedback is received in the Building stage.

No such distinction was made on the podcast or on her website, however.


To be sure, no framework is perfect. Neither are they applicable to every person in every context. However, as a proponent of the power of mapping a path to one’s dream goals, I find Marshall’s four stages of thought leadership to be helpful in this regard.

Imperfect though it may be, the quality of Marshall’s information is imminently more helpful than articles with headlines such as,“7 Steps to Becoming a Thought Leader Like Seth Godin in Half the Time While Doing Half the Work”

There’s no hack to changing the world.

But there might be four, evolutionary stages impacting it.

Call to Action

Click the green heart to share the message.

Free eBook — ReBelieve: Get Unstuck by Believing the TRUTH About Yourself

Originally published at on July 6, 2017.