4 Qualities All Leaders Must Cultivate to Have Influence in Their Industry
The fastest path to successful thought leadership: PART ONE
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When you struggle with personal branding the way I’ve described in my previous newsletter, you probably can’t escape the feeling that the whole enterprise is a frivolous or superficial one. Something that feeds your ego and little else.
Because of this, I advocate that instead of focusing on building your personal brand, you aim for growing your thought leadership.
Now, let’s be clear.
On some level, we’re just arguing semantics here. And there will be plenty of you that still roll your eyes at the concept of trying to be a thought leader.
I get it.
We’ve all seen those cringe-worthy people on LinkedIn who have “thought leader” as their title or headline. I put them in the same camp as people who call themselves visionaries or gurus.
They tend to be a little more focused on the title or the recognition than on the work and expertise to back it up. And no one wants to be that guy (and I’m using “guy” as a non-gendered word here. Partly because I hate the term “gal”, and “girl” is too diminutive, and it’s simply easier. Just a stylistic choice, not wanting to overlook inclusivity here).
But I’ve thought a lot about this concept and have my own way of looking at what makes a Thought Leader.
I’ve read nearly every book or blog post that I could uncover on the subject. I’ve thought about the hundreds of non-fiction and memoir authors whose content I have devoured. I’ve had countless discussions with other leaders and thinkers in this personal branding and thought leadership space.
This is all to say this conception isn’t half-baked.
Undoubtedly it will continue to evolve, as it does to slight degrees nearly every time I wind up in a heated discussion around it, but it comes from a thoughtful, and well-considered space.
As I’ve developed and discussed this concept, it always sparks a lively conversation and I’ve found many of the impressive leaders, entrepreneurs, and business professionals who struggle with this whole personal branding idea find this direction not only more palatable but also rather inspiring and worth pursuing.
The crux of the difference between personal branding and thought leadership lies in whom the work is designed to serve. Is it a self-serving enterprise, or one that focuses on giving back and making a difference?
Let’s think about our perception of personal branding for a moment and the examples that immediately come to mind. We think of Instagram influencers, YouTube stars, and, often, people famous for being famous for many of us. The idea here is that they built their brand, built their notoriety, for the sole purpose of profiting off of it.
Now, I’ve already shared why this is most decidedly not the case. That in all actuality, we all have a personal brand. It’s what we’re known for, our reputation. This means that whether we apply intention into its creation and growth, or not, it exists and can have a positive or negative impact on our careers, goals, and lives.
Our personal brand is one hundred percent about us, who we are, and what we do in the world.
Thought leadership, on the other hand, is bigger than that. You’re not much of a leader if you’re a leader only of yourself. Thought leadership means playing a larger role in the community in which you live and work. When I say “community,” this could be a geographical community, but more frequently it is an industry or discipline. The area of work, life, and impact on which you focus.
For example, perhaps you’re a software developer and you’re passionate about STEM education for girls, and evangelizing women in software engineering. That means that as a thought leader, you’d likely serve several communities; software development, women in software development, STEM education for girls, etc. The work you do serves a broader audience and purpose. And while you personally may benefit from your advocacy, that isn’t really the point.
It’s that dedication to the greater good that makes someone a true leader.
And let’s be clear about what it takes to be a leader. A leader’s role isn’t always easy, and most would tell you their job isn’t glamorous, and that it can be lonely. But leaders do the work they do because they believe in the cause they represent. They stand for something and are driven to make a difference.
When you have a vision of making a difference, you have to realize that a greater platform empowers a greater impact.
Do you think Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could have accomplished what he did if he played small? If he thought he should just stay on the sidelines and do his work quietly?
Now, you might not have such grand visions as comparing yourself to the great MLK, but if you take a look around your industry, I am sure you will spot thought leaders that took a risk, and that you admire because of it.
They wrote that book explaining a concept, process, or belief that changed the way people looked at a particular idea or situation.
They got on a stage and shared a story that wowed others, made them think, and got them to invest in change.
They started a podcast, a YouTube channel, a newsletter, a blog that helped others solve problems big and small.
They put themselves out there. They shared with the world. And they made a difference doing it.
I know what you might be thinking. That sharing publicly, putting themselves out there, just comes naturally to those people. I promise you’re wrong.
Sure, it might be true for some of them, but nearly every thought leader and influencer I’ve spoken to has admitted they struggle with sometimes crippling self-doubt. In fact, there’s ample research that links self-doubt and intelligence. After all, when you’re smart -- and especially if you’re also emotionally intelligent and self-aware -- you’re likely to also be aware of the abundance of experts that surround you, causing you to doubt your role within it all.
Heck, Amber Naslund, who is a marketing consultant and author and well-respected keynote speaker and expert, with a BIG Twitter following (63k as I write this), open tweets about the immense struggles with self-doubt and imposter syndrome that she faces while writing a book about...Imposter Syndrome. Oh, the irony!
I know that I have also struggled with self-doubt, embarrassment, stress, and worry about the way I write, record videos, post photos, and share my life and my thoughts online. It has been a long process of learning that has helped me push past my self-doubts and fears to finally be able to own the fact that playing small doesn’t serve me or the people whom I am destined to serve.
When we connect to a purpose greater than ourselves, our bank accounts, or our likes, followers, and impressions, it becomes easier to take a risk and share our journeys and stories with others.
For me, this is what it means to be a thought leader. To share ourselves with others to make a difference.
PART II OF THIS ARTICLE WILL BE OUT NEXT TUESDAY. IT WILL GIVE YOU ALL THE RIGHT QUESTIONS YOU NEED TO ASK YOURSELF TO BE AN IMPACTFUL THOUGHT LEADER.
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