Thought Leadership Is Not Only For Who You Think It Is


I love, love, love to talk to college students. I’ve spoken at higher-learning institutions including Harvard, Drexel, Penn and Arcadia – the latter you probably never heard of, but is a great school and I don’t just say that because my daughter goes there. One of the many lessons I try to impart whenever I speak — to college students or really anyone, for that matter — is that we are ALL creative in one way or another.

This is how it normally goes: I ask for a show of hands as to who in the audience thinks they’re creative. I’ll get a smattering of hands raised but I have NEVER had everyone in a given room raise their hand. The reason being society has deemed certain occupations or skills/talents, college majors as being “creative.”

I immediately tell the group that EVERYONE is creative in their own way.

Analogy Over, Moving Right Along

I share the above story because I believe the exact same dynamic is at play when it comes to thought leadership. Far too many of out there are conditioned to believe that thought leadership only applies to certain people:

  • Those in leadership positions.
  • Those with leadership-type words in their title: Director, Manager, CEO, CMO, CFO, etc.
  • Those over a certain age.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

So then the question begs to ask: Can anyone be a thought leader?

Well the simple, short answer is yes. However, there are some ground rules. Via Thought Leadership Lab:

“Thought leaders do come in every shape and size, they do come from any background or community and they can be any age, gender or ethnicity. That said, not just anyone can be a thought leader. Thought leadership takes time (sometimes years); knowledge and expertise in a particular niche; a certain level of commitment and a willingness to buck the status quo or the way things have always been done.”

Adding to that, via Brand Yourself:

There are certain characteristics typically associated with thought leaders, including:

  • Expertise in a particular niche
  • Ongoing involvement or awareness of that niche
  • A clearly identified POV
  • Credibility
  • Supportive following

My take on what it takes to be a thought leader is an amalgamation of everything above.

  • You absolutely need to be well-read on a given topic.
  • And you convey that well-readness, if you will, via what you write and say. Trust me, people will see right through you if you’re trying present yourself as a thought leader on a topic yet can’t walk the walk or talk the talk.
  • You can be of any age, race or gender. Makes NO difference.
  • Just as it makes NO difference what your title reads on your business card.
  • You have to put the time in; how much time is highly-subjective but let’s just say you can’t write one article and then wonder why no one views you as a thought leader.
  • And conversely you don’t need to write 5,000 articles or shoot 10,000 videos to establish yourself as a thought leader. It’s quality AND quantity.
  • You absolutely, as stated above, need to have the willingness to buck the status quo or the way things have always been done. This is critical.
  • You cannot regurgitate what everyone is saying and expect to be held up as a thought leader.
  • No, you need to have a unique point of view; you need to openly question things and disrupt things BUT you need to do so with a purpose. Don’t zig when the whole world zags just to be different. Tell the world WHY you zigged when the rest of us zagged.
  • And don’t think that just because something has been written about and discussed ad nauseam that you cannot nor should not write about/talk about it yourself. I hear this lament ALL THE TIME. ‘I can’t write about XYZ because everyone already has.’ My reply to that is the same every single time. “You’re right. Many people have written about/spoken about XYZ. But you haven’t. And THAT is what will make it unique.
  • Finally, just because you are in a leadership role and have a fancy title and people reporting to you and so on, does NOT mean you are automatically a thought leader. Not in the least. The same rules apply regardless of what you think you “earned” by getting to a certain level in your career.
  • In other words, you can’t wake up one day and say ‘Hey, now that I’m a vice-president I am now a thought leader.’ Doesn’t work that way, Skippy.

Thought Leadership 101

There are countless articles on how to do thought leadership. One of my favorites, to this day, goes all the way back to 2012. It’s titled The Golden Rules For Creating Thoughtful Thought Leadership by Daniel Rasmus. I highly recommend you not only read it, you bookmark it for future reference.

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