A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. The term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz Allen Hamilton magazine Strategy & Business, and used to designate interview subjects for that magazine who had business ideas which merited attention.
Before moving forward, I think it’s important to concede that being a thought leader doesn’t necessarily translate into being a successful leader in general. This is a post about influence, not leadership. For those who want to influence decision makers, here’s my advice:
Stick your neck out.
You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life. – Winston Churchill
In whatever arena you wish to be seen as a thought leader, you have to express your own opinions. You don’t need to be argumentative for the sake of arguing, but you do need to express opinions that you know some people are going to disagree with. You have to take sides on popular issues, encourage discourse, and predict the future.
Don’t try to win every argument.
Perhaps you made a speech, or wrote a blog post that espoused a certain opinion that generated some public disagreement. You may choose to engage in discourse with those who disagree with you, but the longer you go back and forth with them, the more everyone else watching the discussion will feel you are being defensive. Confidence in your own opinion is often best expressed when you stand by your original statement in the face of dessent.
Focus on the ‘why,’ not the ‘how.’
The leaders you are trying to influence probably didn’t become leaders by doing everything themselves. Most of the time, they farm out the ‘how’ to middle management. What they need is your expert opinion on ‘why’ things they are the way they are. Let them develop their own strategy to address it. How-tos (like this post) have their place, but should not be the focus of your communications.
Refuse to be the face of your sales team.
As your company launches new products and services, they may ask you to be the one to personally evangelize them. Try not to do this. Make the sales manager the face of the sales team and elevate your public role in the company as more of a big picture thinker. Write about the ‘why’ for potential future products before they launch, then let your sales team reference those visionary statements when the actual solution goes to market.
Make sure your employer or board is comfortable with your status as a thought leader.
If you want to be viewed as a thought leader, you will also need to convince your boss it’s in the best interest of the company. Build a strategy that aligns your goals with the needs of the organization. Sell your own company on your value as a thought leader before you take that message to the public.
Photo: Creative Commons license via Flickr user: Dell’s Official Flickr Page