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Want to Become a Thought Leader? Start by Defining Your Personal Brand

What do Martha Stewart, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and Richard Branson have in common? Excellence in thought leadership. But not one of them started out that way. For each it started with their personal brand, the very essence of their personal and professional identity.

Thought leadership is a collective concept that refers to the overall impact and expertise used to influence thinking and contributes to broader discussion and progress. 

It is your personal brand that articulates your strengths, motivations, and aspirations. It shapes how others perceive and engage with you. It defines who you are, what sets you apart, and the values you embody, all of which contribute to an overall impression others have of you. And for professional success, it is crucial.

We are all familiar with the focus companies place on identity and branding. But today we are also seeing a surge in the importance of a personal brand at all levels of the corporate hierarchy. After all, in the end, we all want to be known for something.

There is no time like the present to get your house in order and define your personal brand. That means revisiting your skills, the values you present, and the impression you leave on others. But instead of middling in mediocrity, to become not a follower but a thought leader, you must set your sights high.

Contrary to popular belief, personal branding is not synonymous with relentless self-promotion, LinkedIn posts going viral, or a mandate for public speaking engagements. To be effective, your personal brand must encapsulate who you are. It must encompass every facet of your professional and personal identity. It is not about projecting a manufactured persona but rather it is about embodying and communicating your authentic self, both genuinely and consistently.

So how do you begin to define your pathway to thought leadership through your personal brand?

You need to think of your personal brand, and the steps taken to define it, in the same way as a company would when defining their brand(s). Simplistically, this means lots of soul searching, research, and strategic planning.

The Steps to Defining Your Personal Brand

Self-Reflect: Start by asking yourself what do I really like to do? Hone-in on the things that energize you, the things that bring you joy. Write them down. Next, write down the things you believe you are really good at. See if this list matches with your first list. And finally, think about what you want to achieve, your short and mid-term goals. These could be retooling for a promotion, gaining respect in the workplace, or seeking an entirely new vocation.

Martha Stewart sets a gold standard for self-reflection. Martha started her career on Wall Street, where she learned financial business basics. But this did not bring her real joy. She realized her true skill was in entrepreneurship based on ideas, creativity, and things to enhance everyday living. She recognized that, to launch a business in this area, there were things she did not know; those were the things she researched, learned, and practiced.

Audit and Assess: Engage in feedback from others to confirm your self-reflection. While it is important to self-define what you believe your unique talents and skillsets are, feedback is perhaps more important. Reaching out to those you have worked for, been across the table from, or have supervised in the past can be quite revealing and sometimes disconcerting. But this is the feedback that can lead to clarity, alignment, and to what really sets you apart. It is feedback that will help to either confirm your instincts, provide a rude awakening as to how you are perceived, or help you to honestly retool yourself.

Examples of this relentless process include the actor Robert Downey Jr. who for years had become less known for his incredible acting abilities and more for his struggles with addiction, including several well publicized drug possession arrests. By embracing programs that would help him recover, and with a personal focus on his acting brand versus his drug abuse, he reinvented himself, re-entered the film industry, and in 2024 won the Academy Award. Angelina Jolie, also an incredible Oscar winning actor had a tabloid driven personal life that at times gained more notoriety than her roles. By addressing these negative brand attributes with those more positive, such as her charity work and devotion to her children, she also had a reawakening, and took the steps to establish a new brand.

Differentiate with Purpose: For what do you want to be known? Differentiation is what sets you apart from others. But it is your purpose that helps to make an impact. And this is where you can mix the personal with the professional by asking: How can I add value to others?

Think about Oprah Winfrey. There have been many television talk show hosts. But there is only one Oprah. She grew her television audience by showing who she was: a smart, authentic, honest person with tremendous empathy and an ability to help people. Over the years, her success as a host enabled her to not just grow her show but become its owner, giving her the ability to build out the Oprah brand far beyond her talk show. She aligned her brand with the core values she cared most about, using her gifts and talents to inspire and help others. Today she continues to support projects and products consistent with her brand, using her tremendous platform to educate on those same issues.

Reinforce: Showcase results and outcomes. Do not just talk the talk – walk it. Demonstrate what you have done and the value you bring. If you want to lead, speak about examples of where you successfully led and what the outcomes were. If you say you are creative, be prepared with examples of that creativity. Align your brand actions and messaging with a clear and meaningful purpose. Craft your perspective and be ready to engage.

While most of us will not achieve what Steve Jobs or Richard Branson has, we each have the ability to be our authentic selves. In every opportunity presented to you – or those you make – communicate who you are, what you know, and what you stand for. This is your personal brand. And that puts you firmly on the road to thought leadership.