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?