You can be a respected expert in your field, but that doesn’t mean people have to listen to what you say. At least, not outside a small group of fellow experts — your colleagues and peers.
In fact, most experts aren’t that influential. The difference between expertise and influence very often comes down to thought leadership.
You’ve probably heard the term “thought leadership” before. There’s also a good chance you’re confused about exactly what it is and why it’s important. If you’re reading this, it’s unlikely that you consider yourself a thought leader.
Dare to dream. You can transform your expertise or lived experience into thought leadership. But first you have to understand what it is, how it works, why it’s important, and how to leverage it.
What Is Thought Leadership?
Thought leadership is a hard-to-define blend of credibility, expertise, and influence:
- Credibility: The thought leader is generally recognized as objective and reliable.
- Expertise: The thought leader can demonstrate clear expertise in the field they claim to be an expert in. That is, they’re not asking us to take their word for it; they show us why we should trust them.
- Influence: Others “look to” the thought leader. They’re respected not only by regular people who don’t know much about the subject but by other credible experts as well.
The Inc. page for Asiaciti Trust, an international fiduciary services provider with a presence in the Asia-Pacific region, is a good example of how thought leadership looks from the outside. It’s clear from this relatively brief description that Asiaciti is at once credible, well-versed in its area of expertise, and influential within its industry.
What Thought Leadership Isn’t
One does not simply call oneself a thought leader and expect others to believe them. This is a source of frustration for respected experts who struggle to break through the noise — or who do break through the noise (racking up views and shares online) without gaining the recognition they feel they deserve.
An example. An instructional video can be useful (like this simple Science Sir guide to fixing a broken zipper) without showing true thought leadership. There’s little about this content to entice viewers to look to Science Sir for answers to similar questions. They might come across the brand in subsequent YouTube or Google searches, but that’s not the same as seeking them out.
Indeed, for better or worse, thought leadership is closely bound up with name recognition and general credibility. So this similar zipper-fixing video from REI, a much better-known brand than Science Sir, is closer to the traditional definition of thought leadership.
Thought Leadership: Why It’s Important
Thought leaders are recognized as leaders and influencers in their respective fields.
For some, thought leadership is a goal in its own right. Many people enjoy wielding influence and being helpful.
For others, thought leadership is a means to an end, such as career advancement or business growth.
In either case, thought leadership is like wealth. Though it comes with greater responsibility, it allows for more flexibility, more room for error, and more opportunity to pursue big, risky goals.
How to Earn Thought Leadership
Thought leadership is challenging but not impossible to earn. Here’s how to get started.
1. Listen More Than You Speak (Always)
Great leaders tend to listen more than they speak. Thought leaders might not lead big teams, at least not in their capacity as thought leaders, but that doesn’t mean they should flood the zone with noise. In fact, a defining feature of thought leadership is a willingness (and demonstrated inclination) to keep learning new things and evolving your understanding of your area of expertise as you go.
2. Carve Out, Define, and Protect Your Area of Expertise
All thought leaders have clear areas of expertise and spheres of professional influence. Some do try to stray outside these lines, but it rarely works out well when they do.
The most effective way to define your area of expertise is to create content (broadly defined) that’s relevant to it. So if your area of expertise is sales and business development, you’ll want to produce authoritative pieces like this Salesforce guide to channel sales. A few high-quality pieces can really make the difference.
3. Produce or Sponsor Original Research
Even if you’re not required by your professional role to produce original research, your thought leadership aspirations demand it.
Original research is different than high-quality thought leadership content, though the end goal is the same. If you’re not equipped to produce it, consider sponsoring it by hiring a third-party pollster or market research firm to run an objective study that seeks to answer a question your audience has.
4. Convene Fellow Experts (And Don’t Be Afraid of Their Opinions)
A rising tide lifts all boats. Don’t retreat from opportunities to converse with other thought leaders; embrace them. Convene fellow experts in interactive settings and real-world gatherings to bounce ideas off one another and share your knowledge with the world. Good things happen when influence clusters.
5. Bring Your Message to a Wider Audience
Finally, look for other opportunities to bring your message to a wider audience. Great thought leaders reach their intended audiences where those audiences live. They’re easy to find and even easier to engage with.
This may require earned media or paid media investments if your budget allows. You can always use your social media properties and web properties to start, though.
You’re the Expert Here
It should now be clear that expertise is only the beginning. Fair or not, true influence isn’t determined by degrees or peer reviews or original research. It depends on if, how, and how much you interact with people inside and outside your circle of fellow experts.
It depends on your capacity for thought leadership.
Earning thought leadership isn’t difficult. Great thought leaders listen more than they speak and never stop learning. They clearly define their areas of expertise and produce original research and analysis to push the conversation forward. They’re not afraid to mix it up with other experts, even people they consider competitors. And they never stop seeking out new audiences and channels.
If that sounds like you, then what are you waiting for? Claim your thought leader crown now.