One of the (many) things I love about being a coach is that I learn from my clients and they inspire me. Let me give you an example.
A while ago I was coaching a woman who has served in the international business world for quite a few years. She currently also taught at a university and was wanting to make a career change, at least out of the business world, if not out of both.
When we began to explore where she wanted to go, she said, quite matter-of-factly “I want to be a national thought leader if not a world thought leader.”
This was one of the times when I am so thankful for my coach training to keep my mouth shut. After a few minutes (less than a minute actually) I asked, “What would that look like for you?”
What I fortunately didn’t say was what was going on inside my mind: “How pompous! You don’t choose to be a thought leader. It’s not like saying, ‘I want to be a math teacher’. Others choose YOU. Thought leaders are people like Warren Buffett, Madeline Albright or Tim Keller. It is not a job you aspire to, but a title bestowed on you.”
Oh, I was so glad I didn’t say those words. I would have instantly lost my credibility as a coach and I would have put undue boundaries around her, even if subconsciously.
What IS a “thought leader”?
Forbes magazine gives two parts to their definition of “thought leader.”
- Part One: A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.
- Part Two: A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.
We can be a thought leader at many level. Most ministers I know are thought leaders in their congregation. Most physicians are thought leaders among their patients (although more recently with WebMD and other sites, they have had to fight to maintain that title).
But that type of thought leadership (as important as it is) isn’t the type of thought leadership desired by my client. She already was a thought leader in the corporation of which she was an executive and in the classroom of her university.
She desired a bigger platform. She wanted her expertise (which is significant) to expand beyond her company and her classroom. As she told me, she wanted to be a national thought leader, if not a global thought leader.
Why would one want to do that?
1. Because you care about people and about our world. The word turns on knowledge. And without knowledge and expertise many people do more poorly than they might or even fail. If you have information that you believe can be of benefit to others, you will want to share it if you truly care about people and their well-being and success.
2. If you are in business (as she is, and as I am, as are most leaders) the purpose of business is to have influence and be profitable. Forbes magazine puts it this way: “From our perspective, no one can possibly be a thought leader unless they’re capitalizing on the dramatically enhanced brand equity attained by being a thought leader.” So, someone who just knows a lot is not a thought leader unless she/he is making an effort to distribute that and makes others aware of their expertise.
Likewise, a person will not be a thought leader who can simply regurgitate information that they have read and remembered. The thought leader will have processed the information. “What does this mean for those over whom I have influence?” Most anyone with an internet connection and Google can find raw information. (whether the information is even true is often up for debate) The real question comes down to “How does this affect me?” or (as I used to end so many of my sermons): “So what? Who cares? Why is this information important and actionable?” –although I never used the word “actionable” from the pulpit!
Kirby Prickett of WPEngine lists a dozen characteristics of Thought Leaders. (Thought leaders can be teams as well as individuals and on his list he notes that “empathy” is the only one that cannot be done by a group):
- True innovator
- Takes risks
- Does the unconventional
- Exhibits expertise
- Has vision
- Demonstrates leadership
- Has an insatiable curiosity
- Is fearless
- Likes to think in new ways
- Has empathy
- Develops the best people only
- Loves what they do
The level of your thought leadership will depend on the level of intentional visibility you have in a specific forum. A minister who never teaches or demonstrate his expertise will not be a thought leader in his/her congregation. A physician who never shares his knowledge with his staff and patients will eventually lose both because he will not be considered a thought leader. As business person who only sells widgets will not be a thought leader. The business person must ask (and be willing to share with others) “How does this work?” “How else can this be used?” “How can I maximize the use of this widget?” Can I visualize this process or action verbally, on paper or in diagrammatic form so that it is clearer to visual learners?
Someone may argue, “There are so many thought leaders in my field, there is not room for one more.” I would counter with two things:
- Go deeper. Become the thought leader in a niche within your field.
- You don’t give yourself enough credit. None (read:NOT ONE) of them has YOUR experience and YOUR personality or your style of communicating!
What are the processes to becoming a thought leader? Well, first of all…think! (don’t just “know” but “think”)
But second, ask…what is the best way for me to distribute this information? What is the best way for me to be an influencer on those about whom I care?
Is it one-on-one? Face to face?
Is it speaking in public forums? Does that take the form of community meetings? Webinars? Workshops? Most NPR stations are looking for “subject matter experts” to interview about the local impact of a national event or trend.
Do those forums have to be in-person? Contributing to on-line forums such as Linked-In forums or Wikis on your area of expertise can be helpful if done regularly.
Is it writing something for distribution to others? Is that a pamphlet, an e-book (they’re incredibly easy to produce and don’t have to be very long), it is a full-length book? A blog?
The list could go on and on. In our day and age, information is gold. But as the parable of the talents (Matthew 25.13-30) reminds us: he who sits on the gold that has been entrusted to him/her will be condemned.
Or to quote another verse (a verse that we too often unjustly limit to witnessing and evangelism) “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:14–16, NIV).