On Having the Courage to be a Thought Leader

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Do you have an idea? Do you know something that others don’t? Have you had experiences in your life that need to be shared? Yes? Then you have all the makings of becoming a thought leader.

Thought leaders don’t just talk about how to do things, they do things and they teach others how to do things. We’ve all learned lessons in life – how have you internalised these lessons and how have you implemented the lessons learned? If you can take the solutions you’ve found to life’s problems codify them in some way, develop a how to guide or develop a methodology or a framework, then this intellectual property can be shared with the world.

However, becoming a thought leader need not mean jacking in the day job, blogging daily or reviewing your weekly Hootsuite report (read The Art of Social Media by Guy Kawasaki and Peg Fiztpatrick if you’re like me and have no clue about such things.)

Denise Brosseau, CEO of Thought Leadership Lab, and author of Ready to be a Thought Leader? suggests starting small:

“What I would start with is literally hosting a brown bag lunch at your company. What is it that you know more about that anybody else? Could you host a small training for a small team of people? Is there a community event where your knowledge and information might be of value?”

Starting small, within your own organisation or community, allows you to start testing your ideas and helps to validate your hypotheses. It can also be a useful period to develop your thinking, in a low risk way, around your area of expertise and whether, one day, you might be able to monetise that, and wave farewell to the 9-5.

However, you can’t be a thought leader just by trying to be one and it can’t be driven by an external focus on money, as marketing guru Jay Baer describes:

A thought leader is someone with proven expertise and experience who isn’t afraid to share it with the world without direct compensation. That combination isn’t a given. There are lots of experts out there who refuse to “open the kimono of knowledge.” That’s a shame.”

Of course having something to say and actually saying it is easier said than done – it can take courage and vulnerability to step into the conversational arena. You have to trust yourself enough to stand for something that you are sharing with the world. As thought leader Seth Godin wrote in a post reflecting on Steve Job’s contribution on the eve of his 60th birthday:

There’s a lot to admire about the common sense advice, “If you don’t have anything worth saying, don’t say anything.” On the other hand, one reason we often find ourselves with nothing much to say is that we’ve already decided that it’s safer and easier to say nothing.

Having something to say, saying it and advancing the conversation in your organisation or community is leadership. As Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg discusses in Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organisations, top down, command and control structures are no longer viable – leaders who take part in genuine conversations (dialogue, not debate) are more engaged and credible.

Empowering employees to create thought leadership materials such as white papers, articles, speeches and the like not only saves on consultant costs, but more often than not the most innovative thinking is found deep in organisations. The book cites Juniper Networks as an example of a company that bolstered its reputation among key industry players by capitalising on the thought leaders in their own labs, by dispatching their engineers to industry conferences and customer meetings.

Glenn Llopis an Inc. Magazine top 100 leadership speaker, goes further stating that thought leadership is the new strategy for corporate growth and innovation. In many industries, the traditional enablers of growth – market share gains, product innovation that wows customers and new markets to penetrate – are hard to come by. Consciously harnessing thought leadership as a growth strategy is exciting, and a unique approach for corporates, but one which will require organisations to break down silos, to connect the dots and to value team work.

Solving problems and finding solutions collaboratively and without regard for hierarchy creates a more inspiring place to work. Denise Brosseau states that thought leaders “change the world in meaningful ways”, and whilst we can’t all necessarily change the world in the way thought leader and visionary Steve Jobs did, we can all aspire to create more empowered and engaged workplaces. Places that say people matter, and that your voice counts.

Sounds like that’s the best career insurance around.

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