Who do you think of when the term “thought leader” comes up? Steve Jobs? Seth Godin? Tom Peters? Thomas Friedman? Chris Anderson? Jill Konrath? Malcolm Gladwell? Who else?
You’ve heard the term, I’m sure, and you’ve undoubtedly been influenced by many thought leaders – but have you ever stopped to think about what actually makes a thought leader? What makes them tick? How do they do what they do? And most importantly: how can you become one?
Well, thought leaders are thought leaders because they bring their experiences, their knowledge, their contacts, and their continuous thirst for new knowledge together and synthesize it. And what comes of such synthesizing? New ideas, new approaches, and essentially, new avenues for solving some of the biggest problems that we all have, whether or not we realized we had a problem in the first place.
In some cases, the synthesis is so strong that it goes beyond synthesis and really enters into a world of epiphany – and true breakthrough thinking happens (think: Apple, Hulu, Amazon, Facebook, etc.)
However, that’s not all a thought leader does. The greatest thought leaders have certain habits – habits that can be taught, learned, and practiced. These five habits (or strategies) provide the foundation for this “thought leadering” process to take place. It looks something like this:
- Thought leaders carve out a set amount of time every day to be plugged into the world of other thought leaders. In other words, they are becoming experts in their area. That is to say that their first hour or second hour of the morning – before they get busy with appointments and work and whatever else they may do to earn a living – is devoted to reading a certain set of bloggers. And news sites. And business sites. Marla Tabaka of Inc.com puts it this way: “Do your research, and then do more research.” Thought leaders can’t read everything, but they do stay up to date on major things. They are constantly learning, and they are constantly being challenged.
- They engage in social media not for the sake of promotion but for the sake of engagement. Tabaka writes, “Social media has opened the doorway to a whole new level of leadership and influence… in 2011 one can be considered a thought leader without being at the helm of a multi-billion-dollar corporation.” Thought leaders want to be part of powerful conversations that are linked in groups. They want to add their voice to comments on thoughtful blog posts that make a difference.
- They talk to other thought leaders and people who influence others – people who are leaders in their fields. They do this through phone interviews, in-person interviews, and written interviews. They want to talk with the influencers in their field before reading about them second-hand; furthermore, they want the connections. Strategy consultant and HBR blogger Dorie Clark agrees, and writes, “If you’ve got well-known connections, flaunt them and leverage them.”
- They challenge their own assumptions. Another way to say this: “Stay open and don’t rush to conclusions.” Thought leaders do this in their own writing through their blogging, developing, white papers, crafting articles, and so on. They are constantly questioning and discovering.
- And finally, thought leaders are thought leaders because they don’t merely live in the world of ideas but they match their ideas up to the real world. In other words, they make sure the ideas have validity – that they are practical and actionable. In order to do this, they have to make strategic choices. Entreprenuer.com says, “Often people are more comfortable generating ideas than winnowing them down to ‘the one’ that meets the need.” Thought leaders make the difficult choices that the average Joe doesn’t want or know how to make, and these choices propel them to the top. Nowhere have we been given a better example of this type of leadership than from Steve Jobs.
These five strategies are the common thread that makes thought leaders into the great leaders that they are. Someone could be an innovator at heart – dreaming and scheming grand ideas – without harnessing the know-how power to make their innovations succeed. By practicing these five strategies, thought leaders bring about those “Ah-ha!” moments in business (and life) that make us wonder how we ever got by without their insights and inspiration.
(for another take on thought leadership, check out David Newmans’ 5 BIG-Reasons Thought Leadership Marketing Matters!)
- What are some other habits or strategies you think are essential to a thought leader?
- Have you put any of these strategies into practice? What were the results?
- Do you see any up-and-coming thought leaders in today’s world? Who are they, and what makes them stand out from the crowd?