Are you a thought leader? If you answer yes, there’s a very good chance that you’re not.
“Thought Leader is a highly charged term,” explains Andy Budd, who designed the first ever Rapha website, still works with sports brands and is MD of Brighton based design and innovation consultancy, Clear Left (https:// clearleft.com/). “Many consultants and business leaders aspire to the role of “thought leader”, allowing them to set the conversational agenda, influence their peers and attract followers, clients and staff.
Others—including myself—see the term as cringe-worthy business speak; especially when it’s self appointed. The sort of people who claim to be ‘thought leaders’ are the same type of people who claim to be great lovers. It’s not something for you should ever say about yourself.”
Train Yourself to Lead Thought?
But if you are an expert and no one knows it, should you, as the author Mark Schaefer says, learn to be ‘known’ (KNOWN: The handbook for building and unleashing your personal brand in the digital age)?
“Those who are known get the customers, the better jobs, and the invitations to exclusive opportunities.” According to Schaefer: “Being known is not the same as being famous…Becoming known is about approaching your digital life with an intent that establishes, the authority reputation, and audience to achieve your goals.” Schaefer promises to give you the tools to being known in a step-by-step approach, and his eight-point strategy includes content marketing techniques that will make sure you’re heard above the noise, such as: having a controversial point of view; using social platforms in a unique way (he gives an example of estate agent who successfully grew her business using Instagram to show pictures of what people leave behind when they move out of their house, including a plastic donkey and ceramic cat planters); keeping it local; linking up with industry influencers; and being consistent by posting online frequently.
Alex Blyth, co-owner of Red Setter, a PR and new business agency, says successful thought leaders do three things well: “Conceive, create, communicate. Firstly, they conceive ideas that lead. They don’t talk about themselves, but about issues that are relevant to their audience. What they say is striking – ask ten people a question and nine will give you more or less the same answers, but one will say something different. They’ve thought about it.
“They’re leading, not following. The ideas they conceive are supported by evidence. Whether it’s research or case studies or expert quotes, they have something to support the point they’re making.”
He continues: “Secondly, they create content which conveys these ideas in a compelling way. It might be a series of articles, or a positioning paper, or a book, or a podcast, or a video, or a talk. Successful thought leaders invest resource into the best possible expression of their thoughts.
“Thirdly, they communicate these thoughts as widely as possible. They can have the most interesting thoughts, and they can express them beautifully, but if no one ever sees them they’ll never lead anyone (as Schaefer says, it pays to be known). So, thought leaders get quoted in the media. They’re on panels at leading events. They’re active on social media. They’re out there making their case, inspiring and leading.”
It Takes Time
So, is there a get-rich- quick way to ‘become’ a thought leader? Being known as a thought leader is thought by many to be something that you earn over time as you specialise in your field of expertise.
“Don’t be an authority, become an authority,’ says Toby Moore, founder of Yappa, a Brightonbased content marketing company (https://yappa.co.uk/). “Being known as a thought leader is something that happens over time, by investing in your audience and generously passing your knowledge to them.”
Leadership is not about telling people you are a leader, or in the world of ‘influencer marketing’ telling people what you do to influence them. Actions speak louder than words. A true leader does what they do and gives back at the same time. “A thought leader is someone who has helped others to change direction and to be a true thought leader you forgo your own benefit for the benefit of others,“adds Moore.
“A true thought leader is somebody who has a proven track record of spotting (or sometimes inventing) new trends, and bringing them to public consciousness. This ability to interpret weak signals, craft a strong narrative, and share that story in a captivating way has always been a prized skill in our culture,” argues Budd.
It’s also about having a solution to a problem for the audience or customer, adds Moore: “Focusing in on the improvements they want to make and helping to validate their own views and ideas.”
Can you measure thought leadership?
“The thing you should measure are your businesses outcomes,” argues Moore. “What activity is making your business work? It’s not about vanity it’s about value. If you have followers, that in itself needs to add value to your business, as you add value to their lives. Ask yourself, what is the change you want to see?”
Thought leadership is also about making a bigger impact. According to Moore: “All content has to be educational, empathetic and entertaining. If thought leaders are consistent with these three things, then they will go on to be important contributors and influencers within their communities.
Budd agrees and says that you should consider ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ metrics. “On the soft (or vanity) metric side, you can see how often your message is being consumed, liked or shared on social media. You could also do some sentiment analysis around whether the resulting conversations are largely positive. You can also see whether your message is getting picked up by other media outlets, so are you being asked to write articles, do interviews, or speak at conferences.”
But, he continues, a genuine thought leader (who doesn’t have to be the CEO, it could be the intern who blogs, goes to events and consumes all he or she can about his passion) doesn’t care about these ‘soft’/ vanity metrics. “You only really care about whether the hange you want to see in the world is taking place. As long as you’re seeing forward progress, the detailed metrics become largely irrelevant.”
Keep it Real
But Budd remains cynical: “Unfortunately, there are very few true ‘thought leaders’,” he says. “People who are sharing their thoughts and beliefs for the positive impact they can have. Instead, it’s much more common to see individuals jumping on a bandwagon and aligning themselves with an already established direction of travel.”
Just like influencer marketing, thought leadership comes under the umbrella of ‘content marketing’. And this is a method of reaching people that is continuously scrutinised by consumers who value authentic, ‘real’ voices. In sport, it could be argued that this is even more the case, where fans and enthusiasts aren’t prepared to take any nonsense. So, find your evangelists, and get yourself, or your brand, known with true, inspiring, game-changing stories, opinions, and actions – and make your impact on the world.