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What exactly does a thought leader do?


Do you struggle with titles? Do they seem a bit arbitrary, and for the most part, irrelevant? There are some who say that it may be time to do away with titles, and I might agree. But I also know that there are always going to be those that take comfort in them because titles are a way to assign value, place, or order.

At the same time, we seem to be questioning traditional titles like CEO, as we are starting to change them to mean something else, like Chief Experience Officer. Then there are the new titles that we bestow on ourselves and others. “Thought leader” is one that you’ll hear frequently.

Definition of a thought leader
Advocate, expert, curator, publisher, and leader are all terms that try to describe what a thought leader was. Wikipedia currently states:

“A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. The term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz Allen Hamilton magazine Strategy & Business, and used to designate interview subjects for that magazine who had business ideas which merited attention.”

Forbes contributors, Russ Alan Prince and Bruce Rodgers, picked this definition apart to say that there are two components to the definition of thought leaders:

1) Other people say that thought leaders know (a lot) about something specific.

2) Thought leaders get paid (a lot) for what they know.

Technically I suppose that is correct, but these two items aren’t the only aspects of thought leadership. 

In FastCompany's Daniel W. Rasmus’s work, “The Golden Rules for Creating Thought Leadership,” seems to be the opposite of the  Forbes article's definition: 

  • Thought leaders have a unique perspective.
  • Thought leaders admit what they don't know. 
  • Thought leaders are patient. 

Role of a thought leader within a community

In an overcrowded and noisy world of constant contact with phone, email, text messages, meetings, Twitter, Facebook, Skype – more and more of us are forming communities (or tribes, circles, networks) to help us filter out what is not relevant or urgent, or what is just unimportant. 

The FastCompany article also had this to say about the role of a thought leader:

  • Thought leaders give their ideas away for free.
  • Thought leaders sell ideas first.
  • Thought leaders get involved in causes bigger than themselves.
  • Thought leaders make others look smart.
  • Thought leaders craft specific messages for specific audiences.
  • Thought leaders help people focus on what is relevant, important and urgent in their work and life.

Colby Jubenville once sent me a copy of the book In Zebras & Cheetahs by Michael Burt & Colby Jubenville. He signed the copy “To Carole- a true zebra!”. Of course I had to figure out what he meant by calling me a zebra (smart move Colby). In their book, the authors describe our world as a concrete jungle and our communities as the tribes. Here are a few excerpts as they relate to the role of thought leadership:

“Zebra and Cheetah leaders rise above the struggle and noise, leading the tribe through their unique perspective.”

“The role of leadership within the tribe today is to leverage all members' talents.”

“…the leader…allows employees to know their role and what they should focus on.”

So if the role of a thought leader is not primarily to increase revenue, why should you seek to be one?

3 inbound reasons that you should seek to be a thought leader
I believe that the value of attention is why thought leadership has application, and that holds true whether you are a start-up entrepreneur, a consultant, author, employee, non-profit, or any other role. 

Brian Clark at copy blogger had these following three reasons why you and your organization should seek thought leadership status:

1) If you publish valuable information that matters to prospective customers and clients, you can gain initial attention.
2) If you focus on providing that information continuously (just like a magazine), you can gain permission-based continual attention.
3) And if you provide relevant solutions, you can convert those prospects into new customers and clients from that attention.

Like Brian, I don't have much affinity for the title of thought leader, but I do understand that there is bestowed a responsibility on those who get named it by the authority of others. Thought leadership is not something you can claim, but it is something that you can demonstrate consistently with proven results. Even if the only people you ever impact are a few of your clients, that might be all the authority you need to demonstrate thought leadership.

I'm sure I could dig more and find even more definitions of a thought leader and what the value of one is, but what I want to know is are we all capable of being one? And if not; why are some people more captivating, memorable, and influential than others? 

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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