“Thought leader” is almost never a formal title.
It’s the label your peers or the media might attach to you when they deeply respect your viewpoint in your area of expertise.
You can be a thought leader in a profession—like Jill Konrath (sales) or David Maister (professional services).
Or on a topic—say Charlie Green (trust) or Carol Anderson (financial life planning).
Or on an industry—technology, banking, finance, retail, entertainment, telecommunications and more.
Or on a much more finely tuned niche—like say for retail technology marketing.
Of course, becoming a thought leader isn’t for everyone.
It requires a balance of curiosity, focus, concentrated effort, generosity, courage and wisdom—combined with years of real-world experience and/or deep research.
But if you’re ready to start—or keep—building thought leadership, here are five key elements that should be part of your strategy.
1. Define your niche
No one is an expert in all things. A true thought leader carefully builds the boundaries of his or her kingdom—and makes sure it’s the land of their dreams. You want your niche to be the intersection of your expertise, your passions and a revenue-generating marketplace for your output. One of my former Andersen colleagues was the national thought leader for executive compensation in accounting and consulting partnerships. Arcane? Yes. Profitable? Wildly.
2. Blend in your “special sauce” and go all in
This means you must not only be clear on your specialty area, but how you best deliver the goods. Are you a researcher of data and trends or more of a translator? Are you a feisty iconoclast or more of a builder/connector of ideas? What’s your voice? Being consistently clear and true on who you are/what you deliver will draw your ideal tribe and build your thought leadership creds.
3. Zag while everyone else is busy zigging
Thought leaders are thinking and working 5-10 steps ahead of everyone else. What do you see in the future for your niche? What do you—and your audience—need to be doing right now to prepare? This is where personal courage pops up—you just might need to be the clarion call for change in your tribe.
4. Build your community
Not every thought leader is cut out to build a continually engaged community, like a Seth Godin for example. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start right now to attract and build your own real and digital tribe in your own style.
5. Publish, publish, publish
You don’t have a prayer of being viewed as a thought leader without publishing regularly. Books, white papers, articles, blog posts—choose your best media (yes, it’s plural) and get your content out there. Thought leadership doesn’t thrive in isolation. Even better? Make media your friend—social, digital and traditional. The wider the distribution your ideas receive over time, the bigger your influence with your ideal audience.
Becoming a thought leader is rarely a straight line, but rather the ultimate outcome of doing deep work in a niche you love.
What makes you curious and passionate enough to invest your time and reputation in?