The phrase ‘thought leader’ first appeared in 1887 in a description of Henry Ward Beecher, but its meaning has been redefined repeatedly over time.
Forbes defines a thought leader as “an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognise as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialisation, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organisation for said expertise”.
Well that’s a mouth full! In simpler terms, thought leaders are knowledgeable and highly respected individuals or organisations in an industry. They are often in high demand by co-workers, colleagues, clients, customers, competitors and even outside interests and are trusted sources. They inspire people with their innovative ideas and their ability to turn those ideas into a reality. Thought leaders aim to create value and use their authority to influence their area of expertise to generate an income for themselves and their organisation. They form their own ideas instead of using ideas they learned from other people – they are pioneers in their respective industries.
What attributes do thought leaders display?
Aside from being well known experts and influencers in their field, thought leaders are courageous visionaries that are passionate, attention-grabbing and action oriented. They also display expert communication skills. Unlike modern day influencers that are all about how many followers they have, thought leaders are all about knowledge and passion for their topic and area of expertise.
Can anyone become a thought leader?
Becoming a thought leader in any industry takes time, dedication and a lot of hard work. As experts in a field, thought leaders must become trustworthy and engaging resources for others in the field. By sharing their opinions, ideas and experiences through high quality content, they will be able to reach, educate and engage with their audience. As a thought leader you will need to care about your niche enough to invest time and money to become an expert. You would need to work in the industry, gain new knowledge all the time, and generate quality content – not for profit, but to educate others. Often, there is a profit opportunity later, but profit is certainly not the immediate or direct driver to begin with. Passion is!
While thought leaders can come from any background and can be any age, gender or ethnicity, they must have an advanced knowledge and understanding of a subject as well as a willingness to “think outside the box”. Some claim that the process of becoming a thought leader is easier if you have already built a great product, service, program, initiative or company because you will then have a natural community and something to talk about.
Thought leadership has a multitude of benefits
With time you will have the ability to charge more for your services because of your knowledge and skills. You will also be able to easily gain and maintain the trust of customers, co-workers and employees. Your confidence to try new things and create the next big thing will lead to a multitude of new opportunities, gaining you credibility and respect. People will look to you for advice and mentorship.
On the swing side however, constantly being in the spotlight may get you down. Of course, it depends on your personality – as an extrovert you would thrive on the attention while an introvert may prefer to avoid it.
Thought leaders in marketing
Thought leaders exist in every industry, but some of the most well-known individuals exist in the marketing industry. Here are 5 marketing thought leaders you might already know and follow:
Neil is one of the top marketing and analytics thought leaders in the industry and the co-founder of Crazy Egg, KISSmetrics and Hello Bar.
Rand is an SEO expert and the CEO & Co-Founder of SEOmoz.
Jeff is the founder of Jeffbullas.com, a content Marketing and Social Media Marketing thought leader, Strategist and Speaker.
Seth is an expert in marketing as well as a writer, teacher and keynote speaker; he also founded two companies Squidoo and Yoyodyne.
Brian is a writer, serial entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Rainmaker Digital.
For more information on this topic of thought leadership, watch this video by Gabrielle Dolan.