Twenty years ago, the term ‘thought leader’ began its journey into modern vernacular. Since its introduction into business language, the term has been lauded, mocked and overused, gradually morphing into a new concept that is now employed in a variety of ways inside and outside of the business landscape. In the digital realm, we see it every day: tweets packed full of ideas stream by as we struggle to grasp which of these are worth pondering, who we should follow, and whether they have merit. The infoglut has become so prevalent that this is becoming a greater challenge. To find relevant thought leadership or to be a thought leader, we have to dig deeper and shift our own thinking.
Thought leadership should be useful, novel, and authentic. “Focus on delivering real value,” advises Denise Brosseau, CEO of Thought Leadership Lab and author of Ready to Be a Thought Leader? . Brosseau’s tips for aspiring thought leaders: be service-minded, listen, collaborate, put yourself out there to be discoverable, share openly, and “think relay, not sprint.” Thought leadership works best when ideas are cooked on slow simmer vs. microwaved for twenty seconds. Sharing one unique thought that’s retweeted 100 times does not make one a thought leader; it takes consistent effort.
As a successful social entrepreneur and executive, Brosseau is a thought leader in her own right. She has developed a framework for thought leadership and how to take each idea and present it to the world. It starts with finding your passion, sharing your ideas, creating a network of support, and slowly building influence. It’s not about becoming viral or increasing name recognition; it’s about solving problems, inciting change. Riveting TED Talks, heart-wrenching blogs, poignant posts – we’ve all seen them. Over time, both the ideas and the names of the leaders who came up with the ideas get shared more, and this happens at higher speeds.
Thanks to modern technology and digital media, anyone with a presence online now has the opportunity to become a thought leader on any subject at any time. Breaking through takes insight, passion and dedication. Considering your idea like a product, knowing your subject and your audience is crucial. Seeking examples of digital thought leaders, we can look to well-known bloggers, LinkedIn influencers, or recommended accounts on the other major social media platforms. Additional sources: industry publications, shared presentations, and videos. The key lies in separating the insightful ideas from the marketing murk.
To avoid being buried beneath the celebrity gossip and political one-liners, thought leaders strive to view issues and topics differently enough to come up with unique notions but not so outrageously wild as to lose relevance. We’re bombarded by pithy top five lists for how to get your ideas to “go viral” and “get more followers.” If we’re not careful, our ideas get buried under the metrics and then we’ve lost our ability to adequately get our messages across.
Proving thought leadership in the digital age requires continually engaging with others, refining ideas, producing new insights on subjects where the leaders have the most expertise and inspiration, and nurturing relationships within the leader’s sphere of influence. Iterating on the process, testing the ideas, and studying qualitative and quantitative data allow those who wish to continue on the path as serious thought leaders. To be successful means curating our own input and output of information, and not just letting the best ideas rise to the top, but helping them get there.
On a tactical level, this means choosing your battles. Thought leadership and quality content go hand-in-hand, so identifying the right medium for the ideas takes research and energy. To cut through the clutter means rising above the stream, stepping outside the comfort zone. When you find yourself being referred to more than once as a thought leader, maybe you’re onto something, so stick with it.
Sarah Granger is an award-winning digital media innovator and author of The Digital Mystique: How the Culture of Connectivity Can Empower Your Life — Online and Off. As founder of the Center for Technology, Media & Society, she focuses on issues central to how information technology and digital media impact or lives and our world.
Sarah’s articles and essays have been published in numerous publications around the world in multiple languages. Her publishing credits include The San Francisco Chronicle online at SFGate.com, Forbes, Security Focus, Spectrum magazine, BlogHer, NBC Bay Area, and Harvard Business Review. She is also known for directing the launch of what Wired News called the “first true weblog to be put up by a politician” in 2003.
Sarah has spent more than 25 years launching, building and growing IT, Internet and social ventures, starting with a bulletin board system she published online at age.