It’s a bit tricky, becoming a thought leader. It’s sort of like playing a game of charades. You must act out what you are, but not say it aloud. If you call yourself a thought leader, it diminishes the impact.
Think about it. Would you take advice from someone who told you how great they are and how you should listen to every word they say because their thoughts are embedded with wisdom for you to unpack and advance your career?
Probably not. There’s a thin line between those who are trying to help themselves and those who are sincerely working to help others. That’s why it’s so important to prove your authenticity as a thought leader in your chosen field.
But how do you do that? Fortunately there are ways that you can position yourself as a thought leader without being self-serving or obnoxious.
What Is a Thought Leader?
Let’s begin by defining our terms. A thought leader is someone whose views on a subject are authoritative and influential. That means an expert who can guide careers or business to greater success because of their ability to see clearly and act decisively.
But a thought leader can also be a business unto itself. That’s why many approach so-called thought leaders with skepticism. A thought leader is usually not dispensing knowledge without some personal reward. That means those services, whether they’re about something as broad as teamwork or as specific as the benefits of Gantt charts, are going to come with a price tag.
Thought Leadership vs. Subject Matter Expertise
Is there a difference? Well, yes. As noted above, you can’t blatantly call yourself a thought leader. However, you can define yourself as a subject matter expert because you can study, learn and get credentials to show that you have mastered a body of knowledge. There is no such designation with thought leadership.
Another difference is that a thought leader tends to have a more public persona than one who solely has subject matter expertise. Do you want to be a public figure or someone known for their subject matter expertise inside your company? That’s a question you’ll have to answer yourself.
Thought leaders tend to act more innovatively as well. They have perspective and lead with vision. They have a deep understanding of their area and a prediction for its future, and they have a platform on which to share their ideas. Experts have deep knowledge about a subject, too, but that doesn’t necessarily make them leaders. There is, of course, crossover.
Thought Leader vs. Key Influencer
So, a thought leader is just another term for a key influencer? Well, yes and no. An influencer is someone who has sway over a large group of people. Kim Kardashian, for example, is a key influencer, in that she can post a product to her Instagram account and boost its sales immediately. But you wouldn’t call her a thought leader.
A key influencer has relevance, reach and resonance, while a thought leader is someone who contributes to various fields. They might have the ability to turn public opinion, but it’s less because of who they are than what they know and have shown in terms of an ability to drive innovation.
Do you want to have more influence or be a public figure? That’s another question only you can answer. The clearer you are in what you’re looking to achieve, the clearer the path to get there will become.
Steps to Becoming a Thought Leader
Okay, now it’s time to get real about your true goals. What are you after? Is there a hidden motivation behind why you want to become a thought leader that isn’t healthy? Is it a simple promotion that you want versus the desire to develop true thought leadership?
Make sure you think through the end results and visualize yourself as a thought leader. Is that where you want to be? Only by contemplating your motivation and by realizing where you’d like to be in the future can you then take the necessary steps to becoming a thought leader with full confidence that it’s the right choice.
Know Your Skills
Being a thought leader isn’t about a fantasy. It’s about regularly producing content and effectively distributing it. Don’t think, “I’ll get a foothold by creating a blog to highlight my writings on the area of my interest,” if you’re not a writer. Likewise, if you’re stiff in front of a camera, then don’t produce videos.
Just as you must know what you’re good at to become a thought leader in that subject, you must apply the same self-awareness to what your skill sets are in terms of communicating that knowledge. Luckily, there are many venues you can use to express yourself. Find the one that’s right for you and your skills.
Define Your Niche
Don’t be a jack of all trades and master of none. That’s not a thought leader. How can you lead when you’re just dipping a toe in many different lakes and tributaries?
Find that corner of the world where you excel, where you have the experience, knowledge and vision of how to innovate, and then cultivate that niche.
Create an Advisory Group
Even thought leaders can’t do it alone. You need to surround yourself with people who will help you determine if your direction and decisions are sound.
Get feedback from people who will tell you the truth. Seek their input. Be truthful and transparent with them. A thought leader cannot thrive on ego. They are seeking something greater than self-aggrandizement.
The advisory group will come in handy as you begin to create a body of work. Share early drafts for their feedback and plan to edit and revise heavily. No good works are done in the first round.
Define What Success Looks Like
To become successful as a thought leader, you must know what that success looks like to you. By developing a goal as to what your successful career as a thought leader should look like, you can work back and begin to plan your primary body of work.
That means creating a roadmap of key ideas, articles or books you plan to develop. Create a training series, a video or a podcast. Whatever you do, it must be substantive enough for other people to learn from it.
Create a Timeline
Once you’ve developed a map, you’ll need to have a timeline for delivering those key pieces. Set up an end date first and then work back from there, making sure to give yourself ample time to complete each task along the way. It’s always good to have a cushion between tasks, as issues might arise that delay your progress.
To know if you’re on schedule or falling behind, you’ll need to track your progress. The best way to do this is with a dashboard tool, spreadsheet or planner. There are more robust software solutions that can help you set up a schedule and automate notifications to make sure you don’t forget upcoming deadlines.
Use whatever works best for you. But you need some metric to give you data on your progress as compared to the planned progress to make sure you don’t fall off track. You’ll figure out things are amiss with or without a tool, but without a tool it might be too late.
Publish or Share Your Work
“Many a flower is born to blush unseen,” wrote poet Thomas Gray. That means, if you don’t share your work, no one’s going to know about it. You could be the greatest thought leader of all time, but you’ll go unnoticed if your work is sitting in a drawer somewhere.
Find the right platform; publish your work, and then share it through social or business channels. What this means is that regardless of your area of expertise, you’ll have to learn to become an effective marketer or sales person for your work.
In other words, the hard work is just beginning. You need to promote your own work heavily in order to become a thought leader. Reach out to other influencers in your field for interviews on podcasts or blogs. Write more articles on other sites.
Get expert SEO advice for your own blog or website, so you can be discovered. And keep producing new content regularly. This should be part of your ongoing plan for developing new ideas constantly in your subject area.
If you’re looking for a tool that can help you organize your ideas, create a map and time and track the progress of your development as a thought leader, then ProjectManager.com is the software for you. Our cloud-based project management tool has online Gantt charts to schedule your work and a real-time dashboard to monitor its progress. Try it out for yourself with this free 30-day trial.