The benefits of thought leadership for consultants are well established. More inquiries from more clients, less competition and higher premiums on your projects. Plus, you’re invited to speak at conferences, write articles for prominent magazines and pose for your effigy to be carved into mountains. All of which lead to even more client inquiries. It’s a good thing. But what does it take to become a thought leader? Is it hard? Not really.
There are plenty of articles that speak to thought leadership tactics (e.g., publish a book, land a TV interview, win a Nobel Prize). But really, that stuff is just visibility. Plenty of visible people aren’t thought leaders.**
There are four hurdles you need to overcome, pretty much in order, to start establishing thought leadership. Actually, they’re not so much high hurdles as low steps. Or maybe just lines painted on the ground. Easy peasy.
Have an original idea. This is less daunting than it sounds. Below are three starting points for your fresh perspective:
- Restate old ideas in a new way. Enlisting the right people on your team isn’t new. In the Hebrew bible (purportedly a pretty old document), Moses employs his brother Aaron to help out with the whole “Escape Egypt” initiative. Jim Collins rephrases that idea as “Get the right people on the bus” and voilà, he’s a thought leader. Frameworks and metaphors are your friend.**
- Provide an answer to a mystery, or at least an unanswered question. Why did the Europeans invade the Americas and not vice-versa? Answering that question won Jared Diamond the Pulitzer Prize.
- Contradict common wisdom. Elon Musk looked at the cost of space travel and thought, “No way the rocket materials add up to that much. The current cost is, like, 100 times too high.” He was right. Bam. Thought leadership. (Plus, massive coolness and a lot of money.)
Corral evidence to support your original idea. I had a nice debate with a consultant recently on whether you need to have years of experience to be a thought leader. You don’t. You need proven success. You can be a newcomer to your field and if your original idea holds water, you’re a shoe-in for thought leader status. (Refer to Musk and space travel, above.)
That evidence can be your own experience. But it can also be other people’s experiences or case studies or analysis. Plenty of thought leaders come up with an idea then search out evidence that corroborates their position. (Blue Ocean Strategy comes to mind.)
By the way, “intuitively obvious” counts as credible.
Your original idea has to be communicated in terms other folks can easily grasp. And repeat. For many of us, this is the toughest hurdle. Boiling down an idea to a catchy, repeatable essence takes some time and concentration.
Once again, frameworks and metaphors are your friend. My Client Acquisition Formula has six, easy-to-remember steps. “People on the bus” and “blue ocean” are memorable metaphors.
The fourth hurdle is communicating your clear, original, credible idea broadly, frequently and consistently over time. This is where the tactics from all those other articles come in. Write books, speak, host a TV show, found Paypal. None of these are particularly difficult, but they do take time.**
Interestingly, the more credible and clear your original idea is, the faster and easier you’ll be able to gain visibility.
Do you think becoming a thought leader is within your grasp? Are you already on your way (or already there)? Let me know in the comments section below.
Text and images are © 2023 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.
You made some very good and valid comments. Good job. Peter
Thanks for the feedback, Peter. I hope the steps prove helpful for you in your efforts.
Great article…2 questions…
1) How many thought leaders does it take to change a lightbulb?
2) What do you call a thought leader who has the same idea as another but didn’t know it?
Funny and provocative questions, Steven. Thought leaders don’t need to change light bulbs since they’re already using long-lasting LEDs.
Your second question surfaces an important point: thought leadership is not something you bestow upon yourself; you are raised onto the platform by followers of your ideas. It doesn’t matter so much that Antonio Meucci actually invented the telephone because Alexander Graham Bell was perceived as the leader in that area. Does that mean it’s okay to plagiarize? Of course not. But it also means you aren’t required to track down every other possible person who may have the same idea as you.
Original, credible, clear and visible. Genius without perspiration…
Exactly, Felix! Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I’ve often retorted, “I don’t like to sweat that much.” Perhaps genius is 1% inspiration, 14% perspiration and 85% dark chocolate. That’s a formula I could live with.
Excellent points well made. We all have the potential to be a thought leader. We just need to see things others have seen, just do look at them through a different set of lenses and add a little some garlic powder and paprika.
I hope that everyone heeds your message, Tom: we all have the potential to be thought leaders. Standing on the pedestal and receiving accolades isn’t just for others. It’s for anyone who is willing to invest in making it happen. Thank you for spicing up the discussion with your tasty recipe for success.
Executive ESP–what we have accumulated by paying attention to the world around us both in business and personal life.. Life’s experiences helps us to better understand that history has a funny way of repeating itself–if we have”been there–done that–seen it” and survived, we can then teach others how to extract themselves from the challenges we face every day.Thought leadership can be a metaphor for good old “common sense”
Daniel, isn’t it amazing how rare and valuable common sense is? Of course, common sense tends to be more obvious in hindsight and with perspective; two conditions missing in most clients’ situations. Thank you for being part of the conversation.