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To be a Thought Leader, Start With Thoughts

To be a Thought Leader, Start With Thoughts

Scrolling through LinkedIn, you’ll see any number of people who define themselves as thought leaders. But does calling yourself a thought leader make you one?

To be a true thought leader requires, well, thoughts. Or rather thoughtfulness, about the point of view you bring to your corner of the world and how it’s different from what’s already there.

Here are three characteristics of authentic thought leaders that may help you along your path.

They define a mission.

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has a clear mission to combat the climate crisis. Famous side-by-side photos a year apart show Thunberg alone in front of Swedish parliament next to one of the countless international climate strike protests a year later. These pictures illustrate how breakthrough thought leadership can inspire action in a relatively short time.

Given the urgency and magnitude of the climate issue, your mission is unlikely to resonate in the same way. But your mission can still make a difference in your sector or your community. Experiment with versions of your idea to identify your distinct area of expertise to demonstrate your thought leadership.

[Related: What Social Contract Do You Have With Your Employees?]

They’re willing to be contrarian.

The most-noticed ideas are the ones that take on the status quo. Ellevest chair Sallie Krawcheck famously wrote Just buy the f-ing latte in an op-ed earlier this year. Her point is that women are lectured about scrimping their pennies – and giving up fancy coffee – rather than going after wealth and investing that larger kitty.

Krawcheck’s distinct point of view is key to getting attention for her mission to challenge gender gap issues in business. To be a true thought leader, be willing to take a risk and express a point of view that is not a simple reiteration of the status quo in your chosen area.

[Related: Infuse Creativity Into Your Culture and Boost Performance]

They ask better questions.

Legitimate thought leaders do more than broadcast their ideas. They delve ever-deeper into their topic to evolve their knowledge to take their mission to the next level.

Hal Gregerson’s seminal book Questions are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life talks about how asking the right questions is the key to solving problems. As an advocate for more creativity in the workplace, I was pleased to see Gregerson recommend brainstorming for the right questions before seeking solutions.

As you craft your thought leadership platform, constantly think about what’s next. Look for ways to lend your leadership voice to the next evolution of your idea. What are the questions that need to be asked?

For aspiring thought leaders, think about your mission – the change you want to make in the world – as well as the distinctive, perhaps contrarian, point of view that you can serve up to spark the conversation. These steps, along with asking better questions, can put you on the path to being acknowledged as a thought leader in your field.

[Related: Five Reasons Strategic Leaders Need to Ask Good Questions]

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Janine MacLachlan helps professionals amplify their leadership voices. She is a brand strategist and with a passion for a more innovative and creative approach at work and in life. She coaches at 1871, Chicago’s hub for digital startups, and serves on the Chicago leadership team of Ellevate Network.


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