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What is a Thought Leader? (And How to Become One)

By Jessica Brown

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If you’ve looked into blogging (as you should be), chances are you’ve heard the title “thought leader.” In fact, the phrase thought leader has become a buzzword in business, with everyone vying for the title… and plenty of people pretending they have the credentials. I decided to dive into the topic of what a thought leader is, and why a small business owner should be interested in becoming one.

 

Thought Leader Defined

“Thought leadership” is now a skill that people are adding to their resumes – but what does it really mean? That really depends on who you ask.

Wikipedia says that the term dates back to 1994 and, “… Can refer to an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.”

So, expertise… that makes you a thought leader? Yes, but…

Mashable contributor Lauren Hockenson said, “It’s not enough to be good at what you do; a thought leader is meant to be the greatest form of praise, geared towards someone who is on the absolute cutting edge of their industry or making big enough moves to warrant the distinction.”

Oh, so it’s expertise AND cutting edge thinking! Which means that many brand-new startup companies consisting of innovative teams with expertise in their field can absolutely, by some definitions, be considered a team of thought leaders. But personally, I prefer to take the definition of a true thought leader even deeper.

 

Knowledge + Innovation + Time + Effort 

I was really interested in James O’Brien’s Mashable article, “How to Identify a Wannabe Thought Leader,” particularly because I’ve seen the title thought leader thrown around a lot lately, much like people were throwing around the names “Pinterest expert” and “Google + expert” just hours after the sites launched.

O’Brien shared the same concerns:  “Everyone and everything is a brand, especially online. With that truism, however, comes this attendant and dubious proposition: Anyone with some knowledge and a point of view can present themselves as a thought leader to promote whatever brand they’d like to sell.”

So what is the extra piece of the puzzle that O’Brien feels a thought leader possesses? Experience. The kind of experience you only get by putting in your due time.

O’Brien quoted advertising analyst at Altimeter Group, Rebecca Lieb, as saying, “Rather like achieving academic tenure… thought leadership requires a continuum of wisdom, accomplishment, and a body of published work that stands the test of a degree of time.”

But thought leaders do one more thing that sets them apart from the crowd. They share information with the world through blogs, articles, public speaking events, and other platforms for broadcasting a message. They let people KNOW that they are innovative, knowledgeable, and have the experience to back up their claims.

 

How to Go From Expert to Thought Leader

Many of our clients fit the first three categories that I’ve included in my favorite definition of thought leadership. They have often been in business for more than a decade, have a vast knowledge of their industry, and have new and creative ideas on how to make a mark on the world. But it’s the true thought leaders that see the importance of blogging and social strategy that really get these creative ideas moving.

It makes sense for a business owner to look closely at the bottom line. And this is where our clients sometimes don’t see the ROI in spending time on blogging. But consumers are doing more research into businesses than ever before. They don’t just want a company that will get the job done – they want one they can trust. They want one that employs REAL people. And they want to work with a company that can show them that they know the answers to their questions before they even pick up the phone.

Not everyone who has a Twitter account and a business card deserves to call themselves a thought leader. True thought leaders inspire positive change and share their knowledge in order to make their business and their industry a better place.

For more info on how to become a thought leader, check out this article.

Who do you consider to be a thought leader? What is your definition of a thought leader?

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