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6 Principles to Becoming a Thought Leader


In a distracted and busy world, how do some thought leaders break through the noise to influence the behavior, beliefs, and buying decisions of their communities? Do they start out seeking to be a thought leader or does it happen by accident? And what does a thought leader do with their influence once they have it?

The Regular Activities of a Thought Leader
There are basic activities that you can do in order to become a thought leader. Most of the activities are things that you should already be doing if you are looking for a customer or a job, whether you own your own business, or if you work as part of a team for a company.

  • Write a book
  • Create a blog (and keep it updated)
  • Be a guest blogger for others
  • Make slideshare presentations
  • Interact on Linkedin Groups.
  • Answer questions on sites like Quora
  • Publish a podcast
  • Get interviewed by other publications
  • Host workshops and seminars
  • Speak at conferences

Yes, that seems like a lot of work. But in a connected world and economy, I've learned that there is no such thing as a 9-5. Becoming a thought leader is a constant effort. So before you begin, make sure that the area where you want to lead is something you are very passionate about. Otherwise, it will just seem like work.

That being said, I think that there are certain principles that entrepreneurs, corporate teams, and even job seekers need to have in order to earn thought leadership.

The 6 Principles:

1) Have a set of uncompromising values. 

What won't you do for all the money in the world? For example: I won't work without a numeric goal we are all working towards or without buyer personae to guide the way. And what would you do even if you didn't get paid for it? For example: I would coach for free if I could. 

2) Focus on your niche skill set. 

You have a unique set of skills and experience, understanding what those are will help you to translate and connect with the people who have a problem that you can help solve. 

By focusing on working with the types of businesses I have worked in before (and I have worked in a lot of businesses), whose world I know, I can apply my unique skills to their problem and situation. There is nothing special or unique about a generalist.

3) Be a patient builder of communities. We all have connections of some type. People who know us because they see us, talk to us, or knows someone in common with us. Nurturing and building those connections takes time. Mobilizing a community takes a lot of effort. If you are looking for overnight member engagement in your community, your passion will flicker and your community will never mature.

4) Put others agendas before your own. 

Don't just give it lip service, but seek to make connections between other's ideas and not just to your own. Doing something good for someone else that has no benefit to you is more than just good karma, it's good reputation building. If and when you have an ask, others will be more likely to help those who have helped them first.

5) Forget perfection, aim for humility. 

Especially when creating all that content and expertise that you can give away for free! No one gets it right the first time. Being able to admit when you are wrong, or when you don't know something, is key to being agile and a real human being.

6) Listen and observe how others perceive you. 

Sally Hogshead wrote a book on this called Fascinate. In the book, she describes how many personality typing and personality tests focus on how we perceive and interact with the world around us. Her analysis instead looks at how our natural traits are interpreted by others.

To be the thought leader that you are meant to be, focus first on your natural abilities and start working on your shortcomings. Look for the audience that is attracted to and gets value from your natural abilities. Find the others who have the natural abilities that you lack and learn from them.

What is standing in the way of many potential thought leaders?
As René Descartes said, “Cogito, ergo sum.” meaning “I think, therefore I am.” At a social media workshop I gave, one entrepreneur shared that his biggest struggle with social media was coming up with things to say. My advice was not to think about what to say as much as focusing on saying what you think.

Why are so many afraid of saying what they think? It's the attention factor. Some are afraid that others will not like what they think and argue against them. They can't handle the idea of rejection and conflict, so they keep their ideas to themselves because there is no risk.

Then there are those who are hoping that someone will speak up whether they agree or disagree. For them, their worst fear in saying what they think is that it will have no impact at all and fall on an empty room. The “no-one-will-care” fear is like sending out invites for a party and no one shows up, so they just don't send out the invites.

Fear of success seems contradictory to some, but to those that worry about trying to constantly top themselves and improve, being a thought leader is like being put on a pedestal that they can easily fall off of. Worse, they can fall off in front of everyone.

As one of my mentors recently said, “Right or wrong, we are whatever the world perceives us to be and regardless of who you are, your opinion of yourself doesn't matter. What matters is the opinion(s) of those that matter to you.”

To get over the fear, we have to get over ourselves. Or perhaps like George Constanza said in Seinfield, “Do the opposite of what we think.”


Carole Mahoney is the founder of Unbound Growth, a scientific sales development firm that eliminates the guesswork of hiring the right salespeople and develops sales teams using a science -based data driven process to achieve 130-160% of quota in less than 6 months with a 98% annual customer retention rate.

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