There has been a bit of a controversy surrounding thought leadership in the last few weeks. It all started with a journalist decrying that she was paid to ghostwrite meaningless thought leadership content for white male CEOs. She raised the issue of how click- and traffic-driven websites cheapen and dilute real thought-provoking pieces by actual thought leaders.
Then Contently chimed in with its own analysis: that yes, there’s a problem with ghostwritten thought leadership pieces, but that not all content should be put in that somewhat sketchy basket. There’s legitimate, excellent brand journalism being done by companies that actually care about good writing.
All of this is a somewhat long introduction to a topic I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lately: thought leadership. Leadership can be defined in many ways, but in essence, leadership is about being able to influence others to accomplish a common task.
Thought leadership, though, is somewhat more evasive. Can you influence people to think a common thing? Or is it about something else?
According to Wikipedia, the term was coined quite recently, in 1994. Thought leaders are basically experts in their field who get rewarded for their expertise. Rewards come in different forms: more clients, paid columns in major publications, keynote speeches at conferences, etc. A thought leader is someone who influences the direction of a certain field.
You could say that academics are thought leaders, especially when their research is influential. But with the help of the internet, anyone can now become a thought leader.
Why should you strive to become a thought leader?
Let’s be clear: thought leadership is not an easy goal to reach. To cut through the noise of those who only pretend to be thought leaders without the intellectual chops to support it, you’ll need edge, influence and forward thinking.
But being a thought leader (even a local one) has its own sweet rewards. Thought leaders are sought-after speakers at events and conferences. They write books and columns as well as their own blog. They drum up business (many thought leaders are actually solopreneurs!) and lead fantastic lives full of travel and free time for their families.
How can you become a thought leader?
Unfortunately, I wish there was an easy map to thought leadership to share with you. It’s my dream as well to become a thought leader, but I’m way, way early in this process. But I can tell you some things I’ve learned by meeting with other thought leaders.
First, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Many people with great ideas are never heard of because they’re shy. Every single person on this planet has a different and interesting perspective on what matters to him or her. Everyone has something to say. Some people just say it louder.
Follow the trends, but don’t be a sheep. It’s one thing to follow your field’s trends; it’s another thing to make them. Simply repeating what others have been saying is not going to make you a thought leader. When thought leadership is your goal, staying current means staying current on the bleeding edge. Last month’s trends are already old. You need to be talking about tomorrow’s trends.
Write, write, write. The road to thought leadership is paved with writing. Blog a lot. Publish in influential places. Write ebooks. Tweet. Practice makes perfect.
So you want to be a thought leader?
If I’ve convinced you of the value of thought leadership, congratulations! As the author of the Medium piece says, we definitely need more women in that circle. Your voice matters—let it be heard! ~Annabelle
Anabelle Bernard Fournier is a content strategist at Stikky Media, a Victoria-based digital marketing firm. She manages and writes for several blogs as well as email newsletters and other content channels. She enjoys well-crafted sentences, knitting lace shawls and riding her bike to work.