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6 Principles to Becoming a Thought Leader

Posted by Carole Mahoney on 10/4/13 1:50 PM

In a distracted, overcrowded world, how do some (thought) leaders break through the noise to influence behavior, beliefs, and buying decisions of communities? Do they start out seeking to be a thought leader, and what does a thought leader do with their influence? Does it happen by accident? 

There are basic activities that you can do to order to become a thought leader, and most of them are things that you should be doing if you are looking for a customer or a job, or whether you own your own business, or if you work as part of a team for a company.

The Regular Activities of a Thought Leader

Yes, that seems like a lot of work. In a connected world and economy, I've learned that there is no 9-5. Becoming a thought leader is a constant effort. So be sure that the arena where you want to lead is something you are passionate about, or it will just seem like work.

That being said, I think that there are certain principles that entrepreneurs, corporate teams, and even job seekers need to have to earn thought leadership. 

  1. Have a set of uncompromising values.
    What won't you do for all the money in the world? Example: I won't work without a numeric goal we are all working towards or without buyer personae to guide the way. What would you do even if you didn't get paid for it? Example: I would coach for free if I could.  
  2. Focus on your niche skillset.
    You have a unique set of skills and experience, understanding what those are will help you to translate and connect with the people who have a problem you can solve. As a writer, I was told early on by my teachers to write what I know. By focusing on working with the types of businesses I have worked in before (and I have worked in a lot of businesses), whose world I know, I can apply my unique skills to their problem and situation. There is nothing special or unique about a generalist.
  3. Be a patient builder of communities.
    We all have connections of some type. People who know us because they see us, talk to us or knows someone in common with us. Nurturing and building those connections takes time. Mobilizing a community takes a lot of effort. If you are looking for overnight member engagement in your community, your passion will flicker and your community will never mature. 
  4. Put others agendas before your own.
    Don't just give it lip service, but seek to make connections between other's ideas and not just to your own. Doing something good for someone else that has no benefit to you is more than just good karma, it's good reputation building. If and when you have an ask, others will be more likely to help those who have helped them first.
  5. Forget perfection, aim for humility. 
    Especially when creating all that content and expertise that you can give away for free. No one gets it right the first time. Being able to admit when you are wrong, or when you don't know something is key to being agile and a real human.
  6. Listen and observe how others perceive you. 
    Sally Hogshead wrote a book on this called Fascinate.  She describes how many personality typing and tests focus on how we perceive and interact with the world around us. Her analysis (of much of the same type of data) instead looks at how our natural traits are interpreted by others. Take the test she offers and see where your thought leadership strengths lie. (I'm the Ring Leader, which was a little bit of a surprise to me.)

To be the thought leader you are meant to be, if you are meant to be it, then first focus on your natural abilities and start working on your short-comings. Look for the audience that is attracted to and gets value from your natural abilities. Find the others who have the natural abilities that you lack.


What is standing in the way of many potential thought leaders.

As René Descartes said, "Cogito, ergo sum.” meaning “I think, therefore I am.” At a social media workshop I gave, one entrepreneur shared that his biggest struggle with social media was coming up with things to say. My advice was not to think about what to say as much as focusing on saying what you think.

Why are so many afraid of saying what they think? It's the attention factor. Some are afraid that others will not like what they think and argue against them. They can't handle the idea of rejection and conflict, so they keep their ideas to themselves because there is no risk.

Then there are those who are hoping that someone will speak up whether they agree or disagree. For them, their worst fear in saying what they think is that it will have no impact at all and fall on an empty room. The "no-one-will-care" fear is like sending out invites for a party and no one shows up, so they just don't send out the invites.

Fear of success seems contradictory to some, but to those that worry about trying to constantly top themselves and improve, being a thought leader is like being put on a pedestal that they can easily fall off of in front of everyone.

As one of my mentors recently said, "Right or wrong, we are whatever the world perceives us to be and regardless of who you are, your opinion of yourself doesn't matter. What matters is the opinion(s) of those that matter to you." 

To get over the fear, we have to get over ourselves. Or perhaps like George Constanza did in Seinfeld, "Do the opposite of what we think."

How do you determine who a thought leader is? Why do you read some blogs over others, or put more weight on the opinions of some over others? Why do you seek thought leaders to follow?

Topics: thought leader