How to be perceived as a thought leader

From Wikipedia:

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.

thoughtleaderBefore 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

7 thoughts on “How to be perceived as a thought leader

  1. Christian

    I’d be interested to know your reasoning behind the theory that thought leaders should not be the face of a sales team. Often the best sales people in any company are the honchos, whom are often considered thought leaders.

    1. Todd Carpenter Post author


      When the person you are trying to influence views you as a salesperson, they are more likely to apply what you say as a sales pitch. This simply ads an extra layer of trust you will have to peel back before that person starts to view you as a thought leader.

  2. Christian

    Ah…I see where you are going and you’re right in many cases. I’ve just been brought up to believe that the singest best sales person in any company should always be the CEO. In the electronics realm (which is where I started my career), you have Akio Morita (Sony) and a guy that arguably emulated Akio (Steve Jobs), whom I would consider to be some of the best sales people to hit the planet. Their products answered the “how,” but they were definitely the largest evangelists for their products. Another great post Todd!

    1. Todd Carpenter Post author

      I agree with your comment. I started this with the caveat that this post is limited to the concept of thought leadership (influence) and not necessarily about being a great leader in general.

      1. Ray Schmitz

        Someone can best be a thought leader, by exerting influence based upon expertise and reputation.

        Where the head of the head of the company is the thought leader – like Jobs, or Morita as Christina suggests, then that person is more powerful still since they become the public face of the company.

        Why some company does what it does can be answered as “because that’s who we are and what we believe” when there is a respected public face.

        A thought leader who does not run a company within their domain of expertise is more like a consultant.

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