The term “thought leader” did not exist fifteen years ago, but today it is term that permeates social media, marketing strategies, and digital platforms. Marketing gurus encourage everyone that is anyone to develop a thought leadership platform and get it “out” into the world. After all, if you have an opinion, you can be a thought leader. Right?
Not really. Actually, no.
The designation of thought leader has become diluted over time as more and more people create content and digital media allows global access to publishing and video platforms. LinkedIn publishing, Facebook Live, blogging, Instagram Stories, YouTube, Zoom, just to name a few, can turn anyone into a content publisher overnight. However, this does not make someone a thought leader.
To really understand what a thought leader is, it is important to understand what one is not.
They are not simply content creators. Yes, they create content, but their sole reason for existence is not to just create content. This may be one of the most common misconceptions about a thought leader. More content does not make someone a thought leader unless that content is high quality and thoughtful.
They are not serial social media posters. Yes, they may post frequently on social media, but their posts are strategic and have substance behind them. They are not out to just get more followers, likes, or retweets for the sake of boosting their numbers. Because the numbers themselves are not the goal.
They are not just pushing out content to meet quotas. Content goals are important to any marketing strategy, but goals themselves need to be part of a larger picture, not just to meet a quota. If you set a goal of posting daily, but your posts are not thoughtful or meaningful, you are not engaging in thought leadership. You are meeting a marketing strategy quota.
What is a thought leader?
They have original thoughts. This is the key to any thought leader. They think. Their thoughts are well grounded in experience, data, or knowledge. They don’t create a splash or have controversial opinions just in order to get attention on social media. They have a deep knowledge of their subject matter and provide meaningful content to their audience which involves original thought. Research, analysis, or data support their work and they share their knowledge with their audience in order to contribute to a larger conversation.
They are distinguished in their respective fields. They have a level of experience which commands attention when they speak or publish content. This does not necessarily mean they have a certain number of years of experience, but rather they have the experience to back up their work.
They contribute to or start substantive conversations within their respective industries. They have quality content (not just quantity) which contributes to the overall conversation in their field or industry. The contribution itself is different and interesting, and not just a regurgitation of others’ thoughts or a restatement of facts and analyses which are already part of the conversation.
They move the conversations in their industries. This is the “leader” portion of being a thought leader. They don’t contribute to the noise. They cut through it. Their thought leadership helps guide conversations and inspires others to think for themselves and develop their own ideas. Their content assists others answer questions and move the needle forward. Their ideas, at first, may be controversial or out of the norm, but they provide a perspective that is necessary to move their industry forward.
Why do we need more genuine thought leaders?
Thought leaders are or become industry titans. They become a source of reliability and authority which can rise above the chatter and bring clarity to evolving situations. Sound like something we may need right now?
Because a thought leader has to have original thoughts in order to produce their content, they are usually life-long learners with a desire to explore different opinions and positions. They are collaborators who are interested in the evolution of their industries and want them to move forward rather than stay stagnant. In this era of constant noise, chatter, breaking news feeds, and everyone wanting fifteen minutes of fame, we need people who are concerned with quality thought over likes and retweets.
There was a saying we all heard in junior high when peer pressure became real. “Be a leader, not a follower.” Looks like that advice still holds up.