Ryan's experience ranges from higher education to SMBs and tech startups. When not doing digital marketing, he's sure to be enjoying some kind of nerdy pastime.
Thought leaders are respected and popular among their peers in their industry and are admired by their customers. A “thought leader” is one who creates and innovates new ideas to help push their industry forward.
Becoming a thought leader and spearheading innovation and new ideas is not a class that will appear in your local college catalog. Neither is there a weekend seminar where one can become certified as a “thought leader.”
But looking at some of the greatest thought leaders of our time, we can see the similarities to what made them thought leaders. There are really only three steps along the journey to thought leadership. Let's look at these three stages.
The Three-Step Guide to Thought Leadership
Three steps? That's easy!
Not so fast, cowboy. These three steps can take years to accomplish.
It takes time and persistence, developing and pushing innovative ideas forward, to gain that coveted title of a thought leader. The bad news is, there is no guarantee you will become a thought leader. The good news is, there is no discrimination on thought leaders; anyone can do it.
It takes a lot of creativity, expertise, insight, and the ability to communicate that insight in a way everyone understands.
“A Leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way." - John C. Maxwell
First, Know the Way: Be an Expert for Real
Before you can be a thought leader in your industry, you must know the way.
It's not enough to offer the same ideas as everyone else. A thought leader brings new ideas. But they must be a credible expert in order to offer insight others find insightful.
Too many people try to be "thought leaders" as if that label is as easy as kicking out some blog posts. Others think they are thought leaders by virtue of their high opinion of themselves.
The truth is, if your thoughts aren't causing people to follow your lead, you're not a thought leader. If you aren't an expert in a field, trying to be a thought leader will only reveal yourself as an imposter. You have to know your stuff.
If you're not sure what that would look like, take a gander around your industry and find those who are pushing the envelope. In marketing, that would be someone like Seth Godin, in personal finance it may be Dave Ramsey.
What are they doing in their field that you can emulate in yours?
Connect with those you consider thought leaders in your field; people who represent what you want to be and where you want to go. Work with them, pick their brains, and kick around ideas. Learn from them so you can build on their ideas and move the industry forward.
Where would we be today if Steve Jobs didn't have the insight to lead the way into the personal computer market? Would we still have personal computers today? I would like to think we would have thought of the PC, but what if we hadn't? What if computers were still something only rich organizations could afford? This thought leadership, that computers should be in every home, drove an industry forward.
In this 1983 speech, Steve Jobs was pushing ideas that make the world better, even talking about a computer that fits in a book you carry around with you, 27 years before Apple released the iPad.
About 5 minutes in, Jobs starts talking about MIT doing an experiment; going to aspen with a camera and taking pictures of all the streets to make an "interactive map." 30 years later, people are chasing a funny looking car for the chance to be found on Google Earth.
People are not interested in someone who claims to be an expert in word only. They want someone who not only has the credentials but has experience and knows the challenges those in their industry or niche face. Having a strong opinion based on your own personal experiences and facts within your industry is what others are looking for.
Understanding the industry inside and out will allow you to target problem areas in your industry or niche and brainstorm those game-changing solutions.
Having the credentials and experience to back up the ideas you bring to the table will give a boost to your perceived authority on the subject.
Going the Way: Establish Your Identity
Building on what you’ve learned from your experience, begin to brand yourself. Branding yourself is a step to becoming known to peers in your field and to future customers.
Write a personal blog and build a strong social media presence that helps establish your credentials and showcase your experience.
A lot of people can find the problems within their industry, but few have the ideas to solve them. Of that few, even fewer posses the courage to put those ideas into action and to tell others about them.
Writing a blog will allow you to start talking about your ideas and how you put those ideas into action. See, thought leaders don't just share their ideas they put them to a test. A blog is a perfect place to share your ideas and show how they work within your industry.
The more active and informative your blog site is the more authority you gain in your industry. Establish your brand to be reliable and recognizable to those in your field.
Networking is essential in allowing others to get to know you, as well as making valuable contacts that can pay dividends down the road. Having bold ideas and being a reliable resource that others can reference is where networking pays off.
Network with your peers and others in your industry. Get them familiar with you and your "personal brand." Establish a relationship with them and share your radical ideas with them. Connect to those you consider leaders in your industry. Get your ideas associated with them.
Keep pushing your ideas forward and use your network to get the news out.
Build a Platform: Show Others the Way
You know the way. You’re going the way. Now, show the way!
You have the credentials, experience, authority, and the ideas that will make a difference.
Be courageous enough to share your ideas with the world. Even though someone else might build on your idea and make it better, if you don't share the original idea, neither of you will do anything. Remember you’re the leader. You must show the way and inspire others to take your ideas further.
Don’t be afraid of your ideas or what people will do with them. Being a thought leader means opening yourself up to criticism. Like I said, it's easier to criticize and find things that are wrong than it is to find solutions.
When you offer new solutions, people will find holes in them. They may criticize you for what they think are gaps in your ideas. But you have to publish them anyway.
Ultimately your ideas and innovations are to help others. Helping others and solving the problems they deal with is the only way to cause them to follow your lead. So do your best to get the word out!
Have your work published by others; industry magazines, websites that are prominent in your field, social media, speaking engagements.
Share what you have learned along the way, flaws and all.
Get those ideas and proven methods you’ve developed in front of your target audience. Challenge others to put your ideas to the test and show the way. The experience and trials you've been through in the first three steps will have others willing to give it a go.
Don't Force the Title
Don't declare yourself a thought leader, do the hard work and others will declare it for you.
Everyone you think is a "thought leader" probably wasn't trying to become one. If becoming a thought leader is your end goal, it's going to be a frustrating journey.
Instead, make your goal to advance your industry. Have the drive to solve problems and pain points. Come up with solutions to the things that drive people crazy, but no one really knows how to solve.
The title will come naturally.
A thought leader isn’t made over night. It takes time and effort to bring your goal to fruition. Hard work and consistently marketing yourself, networking, and driving new ideas is how you will get there.
Don’t be discouraged. Keep coming up with new ideas.
When they work, share them!
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