Becoming a thought leader—everyone’s always talking about it, but who’s really doing it? It’s a cliché in PR and marketing circles. We tend to promise clients we can help make them a thought leader, pepper our proposals with the term, and invoke “thought capital” to differentiate corporations and their most marketable attributes.
So, what is thought leadership, and how is it attained?
While it’s not as easy as it sounds, thought leadership status is more attainable in times of rapid technology and social change… in other words, like now. In my book, it’s not just about visibility or strong expertise although both are highly desirable. True thought leadership requires a blend of innovation, insight, and influence.
The easiest way to achieve that status, of course, is to be first. A handful of early bloggers, like Chris Brogan or Mack Collier, were able to parlay their status and insight into enduring influence, helping marketers and communicators interpret and anticipate change. As a company, Amazon.com is a good example of a thought leader, given its early bet on the impact of e-commerce, and, later, web services, at a time when many doubted the wisdom of the investment.
But most of us haven’t had the luck to have been in the right place at the right time and the prescience to have realized it. So, in the spirit of thought leadership about, well, thought leadership, here’s my list of essential behaviors and qualities common to past and current people and brands that fit the bill.
They’re about ideas. PR educator Bill Sledzik points out that John F. Kennedy was a thought leader when he rallied Americans to put a man on the moon before 1970. It wasn’t a new concept, but it captured the public imagination like few others, and it served as a metaphor for American ingenuity, competitiveness, and idealism.
They have focus. “Go vertical or go home,” is how author Daniel Ramus puts it. It’s far easier to stand out and thwart imitators if the field of expertise is narrow or niche. So while it’s a challenge to be recognized as a thought leader in marketing, it may be more feasible to earn the label based on expertise in new forms of marketing segmentation or online behavioral marketing.
They package the message. Often an idea or trend is staring us in the face, but he who identifies and names it can take the credit. Malcolm Gladwell had some excellent and insightful observations about the spread of ideas and memes, but it was only after he packaged his observations under a label borrowed from epidemiology that “the tipping point” was born.
They take risks. Many true thought leaders are naturally contrarian. If it’s legitimate, one of the quickest routes to recognition is to zig when others zag. The quintessential example here, of course, is Steve Jobs. He was never afraid to swim upstream, and he took risks in rejecting market research and other conventions of product development.
They offer hope. Part of inspiration is to offer a path to progress, particularly in a dynamic, troubled, or rapidly changing industry. Andrew Zolli elevated his own brand from “foresight expert” to true thought leader with his book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, in part due to its hopeful insights for a cynical audience saturated with dire prophesies about the fate of the natural environment.
They take the long view. Laura Ramos of Forrester says it well when she writes about the “authentic generosity” necessary for B2B thought leadership. It’s almost never about profiting from ideas in the short term; rather, it comes from a deep understanding of the problems of customers or colleagues, and it takes patience. They literally give it away, but the fruits of true thought leadership include more and deeper relationships with customers, which is a key ingredient for business health and growth.
This post originally appeared on MENGOnline.