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What it takes to be a thought leader today


DATE: 06 August, 2015

Thought leadership’ can be quite a nebulous concept. Ditto authority, personal branding, reputation, and expert status.

While track record and demonstrated outcomes from your body of professional work will help your cause from an evidentiary perspective, what we’re talking about here are people’s perceptions.

  • What do peers and colleagues, clients, people in your community and the media think of you in a professional sense?
  • Do you share your knowledge? Drive conversations? Lead opinion on topics relevant to your profession, industry, and expertise?
  • Do people seek out your opinions and ideas? Do they in turn share these with others in their professional networks?

You see, just telling people you’re a thought leader doesn’t necessarily make you one.

Indeed, it probably means you are not really a thought leader at all because it’s not your position to make that judgement. Semantics I know, but I think it’s important a distinction is made.

That said, there’s certainly nothing wrong with aspiring to become a thought leader in your industry, profession, discipline or community.

Indeed, embarking on a strategic thought leadership marketing program for your professional brand can be a great move career-wise, or in terms of growing your business.

Done well consistently over time, a savvy thought leadership program will help to:

  1. boost your personal visibility so you get noticed by key people in your industry, including employers and/or business prospects;
  2. grow your influence within the community in which you operate;
  3. build your credibility as a trusted source of information;
  4. make you more appealing to relevant journalists, bloggers and podcasters who are always on the look-out for savvy experts who can participate in interviews or provide quotes for stories;
  5. put you on the radar of conference and seminar organisers who need to fill speaking spots on their event schedules.

What is a thought leader anyway?

Different people will have varying definitions of what constitutes a thought leader. Here’s my attempt:

I describe a thought leader as someone who has strong knowledge of, and expertise in, a particular subject, topic, or issue. But more than that, they have publicly and relentlessly demonstrated their bona fides over time by taking a stance, having a perspective, and voicing their views and opinions by publishing a high standard of relevant content across multiple channels, including public speaking.

If you were after a more cut-down definition, it would probably go something like this:

A thought leader leverages multiple channels to relentlessly drive and facilitate high-level debate and conversation around a particular subject, topic or issue in which they have a strong degree of expertise.

Key words from the above definition are ‘drive’ and ‘high-level’.

It goes without saying the thought leader’s perspective, views and opinions need to be of a sufficiently high level (big picture, strategic) otherwise they run the risk of simply becoming just another voice, part of the opinionated crowd.

And while the thought leader must be positioned at the front of the pack of experts in their space, they also must be willing to bring people along for the ride; this is the leadership aspect of being a thought leader.

Introducing the ‘new’ thought leader

And probably therein lies the difference between ‘traditional’ thought leaders who have built up their profile and reputation mainly as a result of media coverage (which in turn has fuelled speaking engagements and perhaps a book deal with a publisher) and what I call the ‘new’ thought leader.

Today’s new thought leader is every bit as smart and as adept as their traditional brethren, but they’re more likely to build their profile and earn their credibility by publishing their own content online as well as driving the debate via social media channels. The new thought leader is also concerned about cultivating a community of advocates, or what I like to call a ‘village of support’. In other words, they see the bigger picture and strongly believe in involving their fans, followers, advocates, supporters, and enthusiasts in the conversation around their chosen issue or topic.

It’s this deliberate sharing of knowledge and ideas using social technologies that sets them apart from more traditional thought leaders who probably are more concerned with where the next item of media coverage is going to come from.

So if you want to become a thought leader today, you’re going to have to:

  • write articles for your own blog and/or other people’s websites;
  • perhaps record a regular podcast or produce YouTube videos in which you lead discussion around a particular topic;
  • connect with like-minded people in your profession or industry using the likes of LinkedIn or Twitter;
  • (still on the subject of like-minds) introduce people to one another if you feel they will add value to each other professionally or socially, or both;
  • Shine the spotlight of others in your community, encourage their thoughts and views around the topic in question, perhaps lending your platform for them to publish their own content (i.e. in the form of a guest post, or maybe you interview them);
  • curate and share links to information, stories, and ideas from within your various networks.

To become a thought leader today, you don’t need to rely on the gatekeepers e.g. the media, or book publishers. You can become your own media channel, and you can publish your own books and distribute them globally.

But as you can see, this all takes time and effort so be prepared to dig in for the long term. That said, the rewards will be worth it – you’ll make an impact, touch people’s lives and who knows what interesting and cool opportunities will open up for you!

Good luck!


Trevor Young

Trevor Young helps companies and organisations leverage social media and content marketing to tell their story, grow their audience and build their brand. Trevor blogs at and can be followed on Twitter @trevoryoung. His book microDOMINATION: How to leverage social media and content marketing to build a mini-business empire around your personal brand is available from all good bookshops, as well as online.