How to Become a Thought Leader

By: Adam G Fleming in innovation, 3 years ago

Do you want to be thought of as a “thought leader”? I’m not saying that I am a thought leader … but I’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking about what it means.

Why try to become a thought leader? It’s the cutting edge workers, the ones who take the risks, who are willing to fail, to be wrong, to try again, to re-conceive until they have something valuable, these are the people who find the gold. Are you familiar with the California gold rush? The Yukon gold rush? Any gold rush, anywhere, ever? It’s always the first ones in who discover most of the gold. After that, you might as well be selling supplies to the other miners, the ones who came late to the party. The suppliers to the second and third wave also make a lot of money: tools for digging, booze for the inevitable derelicts and hangers-on who are bound to show up, hoping for a lucky day. It’s tough mining in a crowded market. You might make it, but you’re going to have to dig constantly.

What is a thought leader, really? It’s someone who is synchronizing ideas, putting two and two together to get something new. A friend of mine came back from his engineering and math studies at Purdue University and said he’d learned that sometimes, in really DEEP math, two and two does not equal four. I don’t know how these mathematicians get there, but, I do know that took one heck of a thought leader to draw that conclusion, and an even better one to explain it to students who had spent 12 years learning that 2+2 ALWAYS = 4! That had to be some pretty interesting thinking, and some pretty convincing communication, to not get laughed out of the University, right?

Another example: Think about how, in the early days of hip-hop, people were sampling records, creating tapes that used parts of other recordings to make something completely new. This is different than just doing your own rendition or cover of, say, a Sinatra song. The guys who sampled records were doing something innovative with disparate parts, they weren’t just playing covers. There’s nothing wrong with putting a new spin on an old topic, rehashing “Singin’ in the Rain”, say with some extra trombones, saxophones and a ska beat, but that’s not necessarily the kind of thing that gets you branded as a “thought leader.” That gets you branded as a “cover band.” I know enough musicians to know that the one is considered much more respectable, if not always more lucrative, than the other.

So, a thought leader takes disparate concepts and comes up with something totally new. This is a creative pursuit that takes both effort and time. The good news is, I believe, that anyone could do it. Here are some ideas about how it happens, followed by some ideas about how you might cultivate it.

First, you have to be thinking about your “important work”. (If you follow Seth Godin, you know this is one of his favorite phrases.) This thinking will take time. You need to find some conclusions out of disparate concepts that nobody has come up with before. That in itself is difficult enough, but to be a thought leader, you need to go further. Next, you’ll also need some time to think about what you thought. This is called meta-cognition. The reason that you think about what you’ve been thinking about is so that you can articulate and communicate the idea. For example, I’ve been thinking about what thought leadership entails, but to communicate it, I needed to come up with a concrete example, so I used the idea of old-school hip-hop sampling in a comparison to covering someone else’s songs, to show you what I meant. Finally, you’ll need to deliver those concepts. If you can’t do that, you’re just a thinker, not a leader. You need to be solid, but not amazing, at writing or public speaking, most likely, or have some sort of other medium through which you deliver your ideas. You also need to be willing to get feedback and edit what you’ve written or spoken about. It’s the idea that should be amazing. Don’t despair. Your delivery is something you can always work on. Toastmasters chapters will help you polish your speaking, and an editor is worth paying if you’re going to write.

Here are two practical things you can do to give yourself a chance to become a thought leader.

First, schedule some time to read. I stay away from non-fiction. Yeah, I’ve read the E-Myth, and The Go-Giver, and such like, but I prefer to read novels, classics and classic spiritual literature. If it’s thousands of years old, it has withstood the test of time and is worth your while. Second, make time for walking. Walking gives you time to think, or let your subconscious ruminate on what you’ve been reading.

One final tip: don’t go around calling yourself a thought leader. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s quote which originally was related to power: “Being a thought leader is like being a lady. If you have to tell people that you are, then you aren’t.”

I look forward to hearing your comments! Perhaps I’ll even get to edit this!

User Comments

4 Replies