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What does a thought leader do?

Posted by Carole Mahoney on 10/2/13 1:15 PM

Do you struggle with titles? Do they seem arbitrary and for the most part- irrelevant? There are some who say maybe it is time to do away with titles, and I might agree. But I also know that there are always going to be those that take comfort in them, as a way to assign value, place, or order.

At the same time we seem to be questioning traditional titles like CEO we are starting to change them to mean something else, like Chief Experience Officer. The internet has changed the way we do business and what we call it.

Then there are the new titles we bestow on ourselves and others. Thought leader is one that I seem to be hearing a lot lately after it was recently used by a client, a peer, a prospect and a stranger to describe me. At first I thought they were just flattering me, but after the multiple occurrences I decided it was time to understand more about what this responsibility meant.

Definition of a thought leader

Advocate, expert, curator, publisher, and leader are all terms I found that tried to describe what a thought leader was. Wikipedia currently states: 

"A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. The term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz Allen Hamilton magazine Strategy & Business, and used to designate interview subjects for that magazine who had business ideas which merited attention."

Forbes contributors Russ Alan Prince and Bruce Rodgers picked this definition apart to say that there are 2 components to the definition of thought leaders:

  • Other people say that thought leaders know (a lot) about something specific.
  • Thought leaders get paid (a lot) for what they know.
Technically I suppose it is correct. But I still wasn't satisfied that this was the only aspects of thought leadership. So back to Google I went and came across FastCompany's Daniel W. Rasmus "The Golden Rules for Creating Thought Leadership" which seemed opposite of the Forbes article's definition: 
  • Thought leaders have a unique perspective.
  • Thought leaders admit what they don't know. 
  • Thought leaders are patient. 

Role of a thought leader within a community.

In an overcrowded and noisy world of constant contact with phone, email, text messages, meetings, Twitter, Facebook, Skype - more and more of us are forming communities (or tribes, circles, networks) to help us filter out what is not relevant, urgent and unimportant. The FastCompany article also had this to say about the role of a thought leader:

  • Thought leaders give their ideas away for free.
  • Thought leaders sell ideas first.
  • Thought leaders get involved in causes bigger than themselves.
  • Thought leaders make others look smart.
  • Thought leaders craft specific messages for specific audiences.
  • Thought leaders help people focus on what is relevant, important and urgent in their work and life.

One of the many books that I am reading right now is Zebras & Cheetahs by Michael Burt & Colby Jubenville. Colby sent me a copy of the book after a client introduced us and we had a few conversations. He signed the copy "To Carole- a true zebra!". Of course I had to figure out what he meant by calling me a zebra (smart move Colby). In their book the authors describe our world as a concrete jungle and our communities as the tribes. A few excerpts as they relate to the role of thought leadership:

"Zebra and Cheetah leaders rise above the struggle and noise, leading the tribe through their unique perspective."

"The role of leadership within the tribe today is to leverage all members' talents."

"...the leader...allows employees to know their role and what they should focus on."

So if the role of a thought leader is not primarily to increase revenue, why should you seek to be one?

3 inbound reasons  that you should seek to be a thought leader.

I believe that the value of attention is why thought leadership has application whether you are a start-up entrepreneur, a consultant, author, employee, non-profit, etc. Brian Clark at copyblogger had these following 3 reasons why you and your organization should seek thought leadership status:

  1. If you publish valuable information that matters to prospective customers and clients, you can gain initial attention.
  2. If you focus on providing that information continuously (just like a magazine), you can gain permission-based continual attention.
  3. And if you provide relevant solutions, you can convert those prospects into new customers and clients from that attention.

Like Brian, I don't have much affinity for the title of thought leader, but I do understand that there is bestowed a responsibility on those who get named it by the authority of others. Thought leadership is not something you can claim (I am a guru, expert, or the best of!), but it is something that you demonstrate consistently. Even if the only people you ever impact are a few of your clients, that might be all the authority you need to demonstrate thought leadership. 

I'm sure I could dig more and find even more definitions of a thought leader and what the value of one is, but what I want to know is are we all capable of being one? And if not; why are some people more captivating, memorable and influential than others? Stay tuned for the next post on how to demonstrate thought leadership in your communities. 

Topics: thought leader