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What Are the Steps to Great Thought Leadership?

How are great thought leaders made and what sets apart great thought leadership from the rest? While the term thought leader is often used boastfully, as a vague aspirational measure of one’s own clout, it is so much more than clicks, likes or reads. Thought leaders, through the body of their work, their ideas, their authority, and their credibility, influence thinking and contribute to broader discussion and progress. And because of this, thought leadership has become a powerful tool in today's business landscape, embodied in real people and real organizations allowing both to shape conversations and inspire change. 

Five Steps to Great Thought Leadership

Thought leaders need a platform to lead from, one that gives a position of authority and relevance. That platform could be an organization or business, a movement, a government position, or a crisis. Thought leaders insert themselves in a position to represent and inspire others and by doing so, their message automatically becomes more compelling and resonates with a wider audience.

  • An example of this is March For Our Lives. Born out of a crisis, the tragic school shooting in Parkland Florida in February 2018, and with an incredible student body of born leaders, they not only mobilized the largest single day of protest against gun violence in history, but they also became the preeminent movement for young people speaking out for change and a future free of gun violence.

Thought leaders need a brand or theme to own. The best thought leaders have a well-defined sense of purpose that frames their thinking, one that often aligns with their life experience, business expertise, or industry affiliation. Having a clear brand, theme, and purpose gives their thought leadership a distinct identity and helps to connect with the audience on a deeper level.

  • An example is Martin Luther King and ‘racial equality and justice by inspiring change through nonviolent means’. Or Oprah Winfrey and ‘empathy and the ability to connect on a personal level’. Malala owned ‘the right of every child to receive an education’.

To be a thought leader requires courage and a willingness to take risks in both word and deed. By taking bold actions and standing up for what they believe in, thought leaders captivate audiences and garner respect. Through words and actions, their thought leadership is demonstrated.

  • Malala stood up against the Taliban to speak out for 'the right of every child to receive an education'.  Margaret Mead immersed herself in traditional societies and lived among naked people in Samoa. Elon Musk's Tesla sold direct to customers, disrupting the traditional automotive model.

Thought leaders need to master the right media channel to amplify their message effectively. They understand the media landscape, have explored the options available, and have selected the channel that can best leverage and amplify their message. They also embrace new, immediate, and interactive channels rather than sticking to traditional methods – there is no reason to write an academic paper when you can own the stage.

  • Martin Luther King leveraged speeches and public oratory, Oprah Winfrey excelled in television, Richard Branson embraced tabloid press, Elon Musk thrives on social media, Steve Jobs commanded the live stage, and March for Our Lives used large assemblies. Understanding the media landscape and selecting the right channels allows thought leaders to reach a broader audience.

All thought leaders need the right message, one based on deep thoughts rather than business platitudes, annoying buzzwords, surface-level caches, and taglines. Thoughts shape conversations and inspire change; authenticity is everything. True thought leaders are living, not acting, their thought leadership status.

  • Martin Luther King’s thought leadership revolved around the vision of a better future for blacks and whites, promoting unity, equality, and social justice. Oprah Winfrey championed the importance of empathy, compassion, and understanding in transforming lives. Richard Branson's thought leadership revolves around the idea that business should be both profitable and exciting, challenging conventional norms and embracing new possibilities. Margaret Mead's thought leadership emphasized the importance of learning from different cultures and challenging preconceived notions about what is considered "normal" or "advanced." And Steve Jobs' ability to convey the "coolness" of Apple products through his presentations and marketing campaigns made him a thought leader in the technology and design industries.

In summary, great thought leadership involves having a platform to lead from, owning a distinct brand or theme, taking risks, mastering the right media channel, and delivering a powerful message. By embracing these five elements, you can elevate your thought leadership and establish yourself as a respected and influential voice in your industry, shape conversations, inspire change, and make a lasting impact.