How To Become A Thought Leader

Posted by

You are one if someone reputable says you are one.

That is the short and simple answer to what is a very complex thing to define. If Anderson Cooper describes you as a "marketing thought leader" prior to interviewing you on air, you can run with that title. Personally, I would have never defined myself as "the rock star of digital marketing," but when Marketing Magazine called me that, I ran with it as well. Harder than defining what, exactly, a thought leader is would be an attempt to explain how to become one. Mashable recently had a very interesting piece on the topic (which you can read here: How To Become A Thought Leader). It got me thinking about how often we toss that phrase around, how few individuals actually are thought leaders and how easy it is to simply self-anoint oneself as a thought leader.

Who really is a thought leader?

Pushing beyond semantics, a thought leader is someone who is sharing (in text, images, audio and video) their own unique perspective. That would be the "thought" component of the equation. A thought leader is someone whose unique perspective is seen and accredited by both peers or other industry experts as truly being visionary (saying and doing the things that others have yet to do). Leadership isn’t just about being first. Leadership is about how the thinking is ingested and used by the audience. It’s one thing to be shooting a whole bunch of darts at the board in the hopes that something hits the bull’s-eye, and it’s quite another to be someone who has successfully hit the target – time and time again – over the years, and have that coupled with the actual growth of the industry that the thoughts have served. Thought leadership is sharing the vision, having the vision being accepted by the industry at large and having that vision become a part of the DNA and how that industry moves forward. People like professor Henry Mintzberg and Don Tapscott are true thought leaders. Their work has changed how we see ourselves and and how we work.

On becoming a thought leader.

Over a decade ago, I read the book, Become A Recognized Authority In Your Field – In 60 Days Or Less by Robert Bly. The main crux of the book is this: publish, do media appearances, speak and more. The more you do these very public acts of publishing and presenting, the more social proof your personal brand will accumulate. The book dives much deeper into developing a core level of expertise in a very niche topic and beyond. It’s a great read, and it’s easy to see why others might confuse a recognized authority (or, for that matter, someone with a lot of followers on Twitter or a popular blogger) with a thought leader. Being recognized as an authority on a specific subject is still a hop, skip and a jump away from being a thought leader.

Malcolm Gladwell was right.   

In Outliers, Gladwell defines success or expertise as someone who has put in their 10,000 hours. A thoughts leader’s perfect formula might look something like: Gladwell’s 10,000 hours + being a truly recognized authority + peer acceptance of thinking + work that has changed the industry it serves x multiple instances = thought leadership. Thought leadership shouldn’t be a term we toss around like "guru," "expert," or "ninja." The litmus test could be as simple as asking this question: who is really a thought leader in my industry? Before rattling off a list of names, give pause. Is their experience and work (the hands in the game) equal to the published words (a lot of fans and followers)? Are they truly doing and saying things that others have not said before? Do they have the depth of experience that allowed them to do this on multiple occasions?

Thought leaders are an endangered species (or, at least, they should be).

It doesn’t mean that they’re all going to be gone, it just means that the flock is (and probably should be) very lean. We should care, nurture and watch the thought leaders very carefully, because as we toss that term around we may, in fact, be stripping away those who have this tough-to-be-claimed title in lieu of pumping up our own online egos and bolstering our resumes. My guess is that the real thought leaders don’t use that title to define themselves (and you probably won’t find it in any of their bios). They’re probably too busy doing the hard work instead of figuring out how to best position themselves with a title like "thought leader," because that usually makes the lot of us cringe.

Interested in being a thought leader? Get to work 🙂


  1. You’re not leading if nobody is following.
    I was taught that a long time ago… and if you break into deep thought on that simple statement, it implies a LOT of work.
    Great post Mitch. I do consider you a thought leader.

  2. I absolutely love this article. I read the title and thought “oh no” another article saying that anyone can and should be a thought leader, but your last section really resonated with myself and my company. Thank you for taking a thoughtful approach to this self-appointed phenomenon.

  3. I’m just a nobody with an opinion, but there’s something slightly off about this post.
    Some well-known authorities or “thought leaders” don’t get any recognition until they’re dead, because it takes decades for industries to catch on and change and evolve, like the music industry or publishing. “Thought leader” isn’t exactly a label that people aspire to; is it? I’ve never heard anyone say, “Some day I want to be a thought leader.”
    Maybe, perhaps, you have a particular bone to pick with someone?
    btw: Looking forward to reading your new book. My industry has been ready for disruption for 40 years now. No one has invented anything yet to really change things.

  4. Well articulated Mitch. In this time of click and publish there are only the few who really bring value in what they say. A true thought leader should be able to disrupt one’s present perspective in order to generate self-reflection and look for better options.

  5. I liked that.
    I end up having a whole number of reactions to this post.
    First of all.. I think of something someone said about the American Republican party.. that they have philosophers and popularizers. The philosophers are clearly the thought leaders… but most folks know the popularizers more then the thought leaders.. so they’re still leading people’s thoughts, right? Yes, no?
    There’s a lot of people whom I’ve seen that know no more about topic X then I do, and there ideas… ok maybe it’s my ego talking.. but are quite a bit behind where my thinking is. Further more.. I know of any number of other people whom.. are at least as smart, and doing as good work maybe.. as the person who’s sorta standing out from the crowd..
    And then I think across industries and who influences me.. and one of the things I see is that I’m different then a lot of people.. for a lot of people, my parents were a good example of this, credentials play a big roll in who influences them.. For me.. I kinda must evaluate for myself, and I sorta don’t care who other folks think.
    But I think that comes down to personality type more then something particularly special to me.. but I think it’s an important part of this.
    Another thing that must be looked at is something they call in the sociology of mass media “the super star effect.” Imagine, if you will, 10 bands vying for our vote for who’s best. What seems to happen is that one of these 10 bands will pull ahead from the pack… and then, at a certain point.. the gap between them selves and the pack starts reinforcing it’s self.. It’s kinda like a way we filter “oh, that person is selling a lot of books, maybe they have something good to say.”
    But I also think there’s different stages in the journey to thought leader hood.. At a certain stage you have kinda like… “thought leader early adopters”.. These are folks whom care about this area more then most folks, and have a sorta great ability to asses good thought.. and they have a certain kinda intuition about this stuff. They’re like a good record label A&R person… And.. these are the people who get the ball rolling.. and help create the super start gap in the first place.
    And you know.. theres other stuff like if a thought leader points to someone and goes “wow, look at that” folks will start looking at that person… so they sorta give out a bit of there authority (rather SEO like) to this other fellow.
    Now what I like about what Carman said is.. I’m very big on the arts.. and there’s a whole lot of folks in the arts who weren’t recognized till ether late in life, or after they were gone. What do we say of these people? Well.. I think they become thought leaders only once they are sorta recognized.
    I think there’s a big part of authority which kinda has to do with were people’s tastes are today.. what is fashionable.. So that what launches thought leader-hood has a lot to do with the intersection of these two things.

  6. I think if the label comes to you just take it nothing wrong with stroking your own ego. We need voices that can provoke and make change happen and I for one think it’s a good label for that purpose. I also think 10000 hours is good but if you really want to impress 20000 hours is better.

  7. Great perspective Mitch.
    One of my key learning’s in professional life has been that having great ideas is nice but meaningless if you do not have the ability to communicate the value of these ideas to others. You also need to be able to help others find effective ways to implement the ideas where it makes sense for them.
    Thanks for the thoughtful article.

Comments are closed.