Recently, I was speaking to a class of up and coming entrepreneurs at Syracuse University about entrepreneurship. When I asked the class what the majority of them were trying to do in their industry, they replied, “Become a thought leader in my space.” Now, everyone has their definition of what a thought leader is. This is no surprise, as thought leadership has become a marketing buzzword over the years. This doesn’t mean it holds no value; it just means we need to reassess what it means to be a “thought leader.” So, I chose to research some of the most famous thought leaders around to see what they all had in common. I was able to find 4 traits that all well-known thought leaders had. However, first, we must define what a thought leader is.
Wikipedia says, “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.” I think a better way to think of a thought leader is, “An individual or firm that leads an audience to embrace their unique way of what they sell.” Thought leaders don’t relay the same message as others in their space. They usually break the status quo, think about different ways to find solutions to problems. This is what makes them stand out amongst the crowd. But how do you even go about being a thought leader? The quickest way is by following these 4 steps.
1) Pick a specific niche
Don’t be a thought leader in muscle building. Be a thought leader in tricep muscle building. Know everything there is about growing tricep muscles. What different parts of the tricep there are, what exercises engage different muscles within the tricep, the dos and don’ts of tricep building. The reason why you want to pick a specific niche is that you don’t want to compete with the bodybuilding.com’s of the world. In the beginning, you will not be able to match their content production and their array of resources on everything there is to learn about muscle building. However, they may only have a handful of content on tricep workouts in particular. So you can quickly establish yourself as the tricep guru. Once you have a following there, expand into bicep, then shoulders, and before you know it, you are a thought leader in muscle building. However, you started in just your particular niche.
2) Become an expert in your niche
A thought leader, as stated before, has to lead an audience to embrace their unique way of what they sell. The key to that sentence is “unique.” The only way you can be unique is if you know what is currently being promoted in your industry. To know what is the status quo, you need to become an expert and study the literature in your space. If you want to be a thought leader on keyboards, you need to know the current manufacturers of keyboards, the different types, the different materials, the lead time, etc. Only with knowledge comes the power and the ability to be different from your competitors.
3) Share your ideas… frequently
“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” – T. Robbins
Becoming a thought leader is meaningful because, at any point, you can stop what you’re doing and decide to become a thought leader. You don’t need a college education or a large sum of money to become one. However, you have to pay in other ways. Those ways are time and content. To become a thought leader, you need to have, well, thoughts. Then you need to share these thoughts consistently and frequently to whatever audience you have. The three ways you can share your thoughts is by saying, creating, or doing.
It is up to you to decide which medium is best. Do you have a good voice? Then take the 5 minutes and create a podcast, register it on Apple Podcast, and start recording yourself talking. Are you a creator or a designer? Then create a template, design an organization, rebuild something from scratch. Put the process on Youtube in a how-to video. If you want people to know about the keto diet, start doing a keto diet and record it on a blog or vlog for 30 days and speak about the experience. Don’t worry about having a sound engineer and tons of editing. Just start doing and stop planning. Build your best product along the way, not before you even launch — [see The Biggest Mistake Founders Make article for more information].
4) Know your why
“As it turns out, there’s a pattern. As it turns out, all the great inspiring leaders and organizations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers, they all think act and communicate the exact same way. And it’s the complete opposite to everyone else.” – S. Sinek
Know your why, not your what. Okay, yes, you sell vintage wallets. But why? People care way more about why you do what you do than just knowing what you do. For example, listen to these two messages:
“I sell premium, stainless steel knives for top chefs all around the world. We work with five-star restaurants nationally and can deliver our knives anywhere in the world under 4 business days. Would you like to buy one?”
“We take an approach to affordable excellence in everything we do. We think no matter where you work, you should love cooking. By making our knives with stainless steel and offering a lifetime warranty, we let you focus on the meal prep while we make sure it is diced to perfection.”
The second one has a more elegant ring to it, doesn’t it? But why is that? To reiterate, it’s because people don’t care about what you do, they are more interested in why you do it. If there is one thing you take away from this post, that should be it. To be a thought leader, you need to have people relate to you on an emotional. There are dozens of other people fighting for your viewer’s time. So, what will make someone take time out of their day to engage with your content? If you invoke an emotional response from them.
“There are leaders, and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead inspire us.”- S. Sinek
Becoming a thought leader cannot happen overnight. It will take time and effort to establish your brand and merit in any space. However, if you start small, learn tons, share frequently, and have a clear “why,” you can fast track yourself as a thought leader in any industry.