How To Think Like A Thought Leader

Let’s break the term “thought leader” down into two parts before we discuss it: (1) thought – “an idea or opinion produced by thinking or occurring suddenly in the mind.” In order to have thoughts on a subject, you’d need to know about said subject. You’d need to study it or at least be familiar with it. (2) leader – “an organization or company that is the most advanced or successful in a particular area.” This part is relatively self-explanatory. I won’t elaborate on leadership since I already have here, here, and here.

Wikipedia defines a thought leader as:

thought lead·er – individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.

So, said another way, a person who has unique thoughts on a particular subject due to their expertise AND whose opinion is looked to for guidance. Now that we have a clear understanding of the definition of a thought leader, we can proceed with how to think like one.

Assuming you’ve found your industry, here are a few of the first steps toward becoming a thought leader. These can be applied on a personal or a business level. I have intentionally been vague with these principles so they can be applied to many fields. I am currently working in healthcare so, when appropriate, I’ll share specific examples of what I’ve done. 

Step 1: Set Up Pertinent Social Media Accounts

Find where your audience “lives” and setup professional accounts. I don’t necessarily mean “business” accounts, but rather an account that looks like it has been used before: high quality profile picture, customized and relevant URL, filled out profile information, header images added, and appropriate contact information about how to contact you. At minimum, you should look the part to be taken seriously.

For me, the audience I’m looking to connect with relies on Twitter and LinkedIn, so that’s where I planted my flag. I found a few people in my industry via the search function and began a private list so I could check in on them.

If your audience doesn’t use Twitter, don’t set it up. You can come back to it later, but don’t give yourself more work than necessary.

Step 2: Sign Up For Industry Newsletters, Blogs, & Subscriptions

Productivity gurus frown on this because you’ll be inundated with emails. But, they’re emails containing valuable information about your industry. These should consist of trends, current events, and key influencers’ opinions. Emails are the most common forms of content, but don’t forget about webinars, podcasts, books, audiobooks, tweetchats and every other form of content available.

There may be some overlap with social media. When you find popular industry social media accounts to follow, check out some of the sights they’re sharing and sign up for those newsletters as well.

Becoming a thought leader is a lot like slingshotting. You have to use other people’s momentum to get around them. But, in order to slingshot, as Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton Jr. show us below, you have to be close to them to make that happen.

Step 3: Dedicate Time Each Day to Read

This is the second most important step (the first is still to come). Anyone can sign up for an email and never read a single edition, that’s not the point. The point is to drink from a fire hydrant of knowledge and soak up what’s happening in your industry as quickly as possible. The only way to do that is to be tuned in to what’s happening.

If you’re new to an industry, odds are you’re not having the conversations that drive thought leadership, yet.

Those conversations are the eventual goal. But, since you’re reading this, you’re probably still working your way there. The next best thing is to know what’s happening in your industry as soon as it becomes public knowledge. Set aside time every day to find out what’s happening all across your new world.

If you’re only able to spare 15 minutes each day, that’s fine. As long as it’s something, it’s better than nothing. I shoot for 30-60 minutes of reading each day. This often includes a TedMed (remember, I’m in healthcare) video while I eat lunch at my desk. Your boss may not be thrilled about this tactic since it doesn’t appear immediately beneficial, so think about ways to more productive with your time.

Step 4: Think Critically About What You’re Reading

Look for trends. Look for overlaps from other industries. Keep your eyes open how emerging ideas are coming together. For me, a couple of the current topics of discussion are artificial intelligence, utilizing big data, and wearable technology. These are individually written about every day. But, when I dug deeper and connected a few of the dots, I realized these were individually interesting, but collectively fascinating:

The information from wearables (e.g. a Fitbit or an Apple watch) is collectable and being sent to people’s electronic health records so healthcare organizations can collect vast amounts of (big) data. And people are using artificial intelligence to predict outcomes from that information so conversations like this can happen:

“Mr. Jones, based on the streaming information from your Fitbit, your heart rate has spiked unusually. We’d like you to come in to get that checked out.”

Step 5: (MOST IMPORTANT STEP) Add Your Insight & Share It

Like a band who plays cover songs early in their career, you often have to repeat what others are saying before you are able to come up with original ideas.

Get caught up on the industry, then comment on it via your preferred social media accounts from Step 1. You are sharing the same information, but that’s alright. Think of it like eavesdropping on a conversation and being able to add your two cents, even if nobody listens. You don’t have to come up with profound thoughts about every article, just some of your own unique commentary on it. If it’s thought-provoking, say what part provoked your thoughts. If it angers you, say what angered you. If you see a connection, point it out.

Learning to digest the information, not passively regurgitating it, is what helps you form your own ideas (Step 7) about what’s happening.

I use a Hootsuite Google Chrome browser extension to share all my articles. You can do it manually, use Buffer, Hootsuite, or any other sharing platform that works effectively for you. If you want to reach more people you can use #hashtags or relate things to trending topics on the various social media platforms.

And in case you’re wondering, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have. This is a drill for YOU, not to gain followers. Those will come naturally when you begin to say interesting things.

“Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.”
— Bruce Lee

Step 6: Commit To The Strategy

This isn’t something you can do for a week and expect results from. You must commit to the “long ball” and realize what you’re doing is investing in yourself.

You may not need to read as much six months after starting, but thought leaders lead. They are always ahead of the curve. And you can’t stay ahead of the curve if you’re not sure what’s happening in your industry. Ditch the newsletters that report crap, unsubscribe from the ones that are late to the game or self-promoters, and don’t be afraid to sign up for new blogs or magazines that are interesting – even if they’re ancillary to your industry.

For example, my prospects/clients are technology folks at hospitals. I initially began reading healthcare blogs and quickly added technology, internet of things (IoT), and other various publications to my arsenal because that’s what other thought leaders are reading themselves.

The compounding interest gained will return dividends when you’re privy to some of the conversations that thought leaders are having. Remember, that’s the goal: not to get your information from blogs filled with public knowledge. Your goal is to (eventually) be ahead of the blogs. You want to be the person the writers are contacting about a quote for their article or even the one writing the articles. Much of this comes down to how you do your job, what your company is working on, and many other factors aside from what you’re reading.

Step 7: Move Away From The Crowd & Have Conversations

Thought leaders don’t repeat what others are saying, they lead the path with new thoughts. Sometimes their thoughts are wrong, inaccurate, or heavily biased. But being willing to be wrong (and be called out for it) comes with being a leader. Conversely, if and when you formulate new ideas that are useful to your industry, you’ll receive the credit.

I can’t tell you this will be one month or four years after you commit to becoming a thought leader, again a lot of that depends on how you do your job and a number of other external factors. But this is a great way to start. And once you’ve systemized this processed, keep pressing and have those conversations.

Conversations with clients, with vendors, with potential business partners. Have them in person, over the phone, or even via social channels. Test your new ideas in conversation. Find out what other people in the industry think about your ideas: Do others agree with you? Or do your ideas need time to marinate?

Use social media, start a blog, or sign up for HARO to be a resource for reporters if you’re confident in your knowledge. If you haven’t done any diagnostic thinking, be prepared for criticism. Be open to it and adjust your thinking. Refine your ideas and go at it again. If you have done the critical thinking and your ideas are worth their salt, you’ll be rewarded with the recognition of being a thought leader. What you do with that label is up to you.

By definition, to be a thought leader, you have to be ahead of the pack. but if you don’t know what’s happening in your industry, you won’t know how to get ahead of said pack. You have to consume as much of your industry as possible to get a grasp on it. Then, once you see the larger industry trends, you can formulate your own ideas that stand independent of the majority of folks who are simply regurgitating each other’s knowledge.

I’m not to the point where I’d say I “understand” healthcare. This industry is as wide as it is deep and I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of knowledge. Fortunately, I brought a backhoe to dig with instead of a toy shovel like most people entering a new industry. I had a plan and, so far, my plan is paying dividends.

This is my best advice for how to think like a thought leader. But before you run off and apply these ideas, ask yourself a couple important questions: Why do I want to become a thought leader in the first place? And is there another way to get that desired effect instead of becoming one?

When Change Is Counterproductive: The Exception vs. The Rule

Teaching “The Close”

Training sales people was one of the most rewarding parts of my job at the furniture company. Every six weeks (or so) I would receive a fresh batch of hires needing to learn how to sell furniture. If they didn’t sell, they didn’t earn a paycheck. Because of this unforgiving logic, I considered my time with them imperative.

Furniture University (FU for short) was often filled with people who had never sold anything for money. They had been on the job for a few days or, at best, a few weeks learning the processes and products. The ones who “got it” ate up the material. The ones fearful of rejection found an excuse for everything I taught.

The process that I focused on was one of specific dialogue. It was wrought with one-liners, questions, and strategy (I can’t take credit for the sales process, that came from my teacher/employer/mentor; the real salesman). The coup de grâce of this sales process was the closing question:

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Using Pattern Recognition To Improve Customer Service

Using Pattern Recognition To Improve Customer Service

My trip to CLT from JAX started off typical: cramped, hot, and teetering on the brink of late. We boarded on time, but the plane was small. Everyone had seats, but there wasn’t ample space for luggage. No worries; I had a window seat and we’d be taking off shortly.

The baggage, and people, found appropriate homes and we braced to push back. After all, that’s what happens when the door shuts and everyone is buckled up. Except, we didn’t.

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Perfecting Your Craft When You’re Not Practicing Your Craft

perfecting your craft when you're not practicing your craft

I did it as an experiment. My schedule would soon change and I would have less time to focus on the things I wanted to work on. My attention would be drawn in many new directions, none of which faced my writing.

Writing had become my craft. Some people play music, some paint, and I wrote. Though my schedule was changing, I still wanted to continue honing the craft I’d come to love.

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Success In Spite Of Failure

People contact me regularly to guest post on the blog. Most of the time, this attempts are weak and irrelevant to what I share on the blog. However, this one stuck out.

I discuss chasing your dreams, failure, and perseverance regularly. This infographic speaks directly to these topics and is a great reminder that no matter what failures you think you’ve gone through, you’re not alone. Remember, success is closer than you realize.

Please enjoy this piece from Essay Tigers:

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Unintentionally Practicing Stoicism (The Demise Of My Station Wagon)

Unintentionally practicing stoicism

I have to thank Tim Ferriss for getting me into this. He’s had me thinking about stoicism for months. It started when he recommended Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle Is The Way, some time ago. During the book, Ryan mentioned Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. After that, Tim began sharing Seneca’s letters via his podcast. I consumed all of it, but I didn’t feel a change.

Some books hit you at just the right angle + time + mood and change your life. None of these resources altered my way of thinking but they did reinforce a mindset I adopted from playing competitive sports. Football coaches preach, “Nothing is as good as it seems. Nothing is as bad as it seems.”

They usually say this when players get too excited or too upset as an attempt to level a player’s head. It can be used for both sides of the argument, but I find myself using it more when things go wrong. Good coaches know the best players are the ones who remain focused in all situations – good or bad. I was raised to think like this, but it’s easier to write about than to apply.

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How To Use Discipline To Execute Strategy

“One minute to start!” said the announcer over the loud speakers.

I clicked my Nike running watch to “Stopwatch” mode. I wiped my sweaty brow one last time before the gun fired and I took a gulp of muggy, Charleston, SC air before forcefully exhaling.

My warm-up felt good, my shoes were broken in, and it looked like the rain would hold off long enough for me to run a dry race. There was nothing left to do but set my 10K (6.2 miles) personal record. Or, as runners refer to it, “PR.”

“Ten seconds to start,” boomed the announcer. “Good luck runners!”

It didn’t matter that I had run the Cooper River Bridge Run six previous times, I still had butterflies. My training, though grueling and thorough, was solo. This was a competition – something I hadn’t done in a while.

“Three… Two… One…!” The starting gun fired and I raced South with 40,000 fellow runners, walkers, and joggers.

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The Quickest Way To Get Your First Hundred Email Subscribers

I began collecting emails for my book launch a year in advance. During casual conversation I would mention what I was working on. If someone seemed interested, I would offer to add their email address to my list. I added one or two at a time, nothing magical about the process, but the list grew steadily.

I had collected my first 100 emails by the time I made first contact with the list – roughly six months in advance. My website was live, the Facebook page was streaming with content, and launch day was in my sights. I shifted my focus to using social media channels instead of leveraging personal connections to gather emails. I directed people to my website and I showed off all the fancy promotional pieces I had been working on. The list’s growth was slower than sap running from a Maple Tree in winter.

As the months passed I could see the book launch coming into focus. Extensive research told me that my email list would be the most important part of launch day; the bigger the list, the more books I could sell because I had their undivided attention. But my list’s growth was still unimpressive.

Finally, after I tried everything in my bag of tricks, I went back to what got me started. I started scrolling through my phone and individually texting people to ask if they’d join my list. Results were… fantastic!

I kicked myself for not sticking with this. Not only were people quick to respond, over 90% of them said they’d join my list. It grew by 50% by the time I scrolled to “Z” in my phone. Then I took it a step farther and asked a few of my true fans to send out their own text messages. I knew they deeply cared about the project and/or me and they would be willing to help. I wrote up a simple text that read:

Hey ______, my friend Mike McCann is writing a book set to launch this fall & I think you’d enjoy it. He asked if I knew anyone who was generous enough to consider joining his email list for pre-launch updates. Of course, I thought of you. It’s a true story of hope set around his 2005 college football team. If you’d like to join, send me your email or check out If not no worries, just thought you might like the book. Take care!

I asked those influencers (four or five of them) to text some of their friends and family. The strategy continued to work. When the experiment was complete, the list had grown over 150%.

My conclusion, and my advice to you, is two-fold.

1) Start with your warm market before asking strangers to join your list. If you can’t get someone who knows you to sign up, your idea needs tweaking before it’s released to the masses.

2) The latest techniques and technology are not always the most effective tools. Sometimes low-tech options are the most effective. Do not rule them out until you have tried them.