Anyone can identify a problem. The challenge is developing a solution.
Way back in 2012, Shel Israel, writing for Forbes Magazine, coined this definition: “A thought leader is someone who looks at the future and sets a course for it that others will follow.” The important piece here is the aspect of following. It would be easy for me to say chocolate is the food of the future, but, if no one follows my course, I’m not much of a thought leader.
After stating his definition, Israel continued, offering examples and predicting things will change. He identified social media as one of the agents of change. A decade later, social media continues to deputize new agents, tasking them with finding additional niches and corralling converts like so many cattle. For those of you into philosophy, I suspect Heraclitus would be asking for royalties on all the changes. (See also MySpace and Microsoft Messenger.)
The evolution of social media has elevated the power of short, pithy quotes just as the nightly news zeroed in on the soundbite to punctuate their reporting. The side effect of both of these easy-to-swallow chunks of data is the lack of context and a dearth of insight or explanation necessary to fully understand a challenge, situation, or topic, much less develop a solution.
The thought leader looks deeper. They create the framework necessary to understand the issue and fill in the blanks with information, opinions, research, data, anecdotes, theories, and proof, so their thoughts can stand on their own merits.
I’ve long thought the intersection of social media and thought leadership was more often than not a contradictory landscape. Social media is fast and in the moment. Thought leadership is measured and deeply researched.
By this point in my career, you’d think I’d know better than to attempt to classify things into such neat and tidy categories. A simple tweet can get you thinking about a deeper subject. A TikTok video can extrapolate on the idea of a picture being worth 1000 words to introduce a new idea. A Facebook post can tease the basics of your thought leadership idea. All of these platforms can link to more robust information, encouraging people to read more, dig deeper, and understand better.
PR practitioners often refer to thought leadership the way I refer to chocolate; frequently, with gusto, and with an appreciation of the nuances of quality, textures, and flavors. Based on nearly 20 years in writing, reporting, and editing, here are my thoughts on the key ingredients for true thought leadership.
A thought leader looks to offer a solution to a problem. Barrels of ink, analog and digital, have been drained as people have enumerated problems. Thought leaders go several steps further and outline a potential solution. They’ve put in the time and done their research.
As the true thought leader looks for a solution, they adopt a broader perspective. They don’t just zero in on how a situation affects them or their enterprise. They take a holistic approach to a problem and define how the issue or situation could or is delivering larger impact, change or concern. (See also ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’)
In a 2017 article for Inc.com, Sangram Vajre opined the title of thought leader should be earned through the statements of others, not self-appointed. I like this idea because it suggests the situation has been vetted. People have looked into it, checked it out, run the numbers. A self-appointment suggests a pat-on-the-back, hey-look-at-me approach.
Let’s go a step further. I think it is also important to say thought leadership is not, at its core, a sales pitch, however cleverly disguised it may be. Yes, enterprises should certainly benefit from the value of thought leadership but it must be more than a thinly-veiled statement claiming, “Our product is the solution to your problem.” True thought leadership can be – and should be – robustly effective in delivering credibility, awareness, and trust for a company and its leadership.
BWMissions assembled an interesting list of what a thought leader isn’t. Andy Gryc of ThirdLaw mirrors Vajre’s general opinions about the title of thought leader while going a step further by saying you will likely never be one.
I’ve talked to many people I consider thought leaders and I’ve talked to many more who would like to be thought leaders. From what I’ve seen, the best advice I can offer is to eliminate the goal of being a thought leader from your bucket list. The people I would personally consider thought leaders aren’t clamoring for the title, they’re just trying to do their best, improve their field, and keep the tide coming in. They focus on being the best they can in their field, whether it is information technology, fashion design, space exploration, or high-end chocolate.
If you’re looking for an unbiased opinion on your high-end chocolate, feel free to reach out. I can help.
This essay was originally posted at PRA Public Relations.