PART TWO: 4 Qualities All Leaders Must Cultivate to Have Influence in Their Industry
The fastest path to successful thought leadership: PART TWO
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What makes someone a thought leader?
I believe a thought leader has four distinct qualities.
Impact. They care about making a difference. They are passionate about driving change and progress in their community or industry.
Evolution. They don’t rest on their laurels. They are committed to always learning, growing, and evolving.
Perspective. They have opinions about their work, community, and industry and they aren’t afraid to share them. They have a belief about how things should be done and they are driven to pushing that way of thinking forward.
Authority. They have the respect of their peers and others in their industry. Thought leaders do not operate in a vacuum. They are known for what they do and seen as an expert, leader, or authority by those around them. That authority might be controversial and not agreed upon by all, but some certainly hold that view.
I have toyed with the idea of adding a fifth quality, but also realized it is not a separate characteristic. Instead, it’s an outcome that results from the existence of these four thought leadership attributes. Namely, it’s when a thought leader described above generates revenue from their work.
When these four characteristics blend together within an individual person, that person adds value to their community or industry. And that value is rewarded. Profit might not be the primary focus of the thought leader, but it is, to some degree, an almost inevitable outcome.
How do you become a thought leader?
Now that you understand what makes someone a thought leader, let’s take a look at how an individual can grow in those four areas.
This pillar of thought leadership, for many of the entrepreneurs and business leaders I work with, is the most inspirational. It’s all about making a difference in the community you serve - whether that’s a local community, an industry, a professional discipline. That’s why I start here.
It helps even the most introverted and “private” people begin to open their eyes to the power of a personal brand. That, when done right, these efforts are generous, not purely self-serving. Sure, this work can and should absolutely have a positive impact on your life, your business, and your bottom line, but it goes beyond that. With a greater platform, you can have a greater impact, and it’s that idea that motivates so many of the most inspiring thought leaders, no matter the industry.
I want to be clear — in my definition of thought leaders, this platform, this impact, is used for good. It is used to lift others up, not tear competitors down. Yes, there are well-known experts that make use of their influence to criticize or malign others in their field, but I wouldn’t consider them “leaders” and neither should you.
"Great thought leaders have the fortitude to keep moving forward in the face of adversity because they see the value [they] can bring to society in the long run."
- Peter Arvai
How do you become a thought leader with impact?
In order to have an impact, it’s important to first understand what kind of impact you want to have. How do you want to make people feel? How do you want to drive your community or industry forward?
Once you’ve been working or living in a certain area for a while, it’s natural to identify a few ways of doing business that you simply disagree with, recognize underserved segments of the community and ways to help them, or have an idea for an innovative solution to a long-standing problem. Take a moment and think about your own situation. Is there something that you find yourself always talking about? An idea that you wish more people understood, a group of people that deserve more recognition, or a practice that should be more widespread?
Furthering that mission and spreading that idea might be the kind of impact that drives you.
Then think through the ways you can teach, train, or inform people about this idea you have. Maybe you mentor young people in your industry, teaching them this method or concept that you hold so dear. Perhaps you begin sharing how you’ve come to this conclusion, teaching others about your journey and helping them along in theirs.
The idea here is to think through what you want to be known for and finding your pathway to spreading that word and making that difference.
This quality of thought leadership is one that often lets people breathe a little easier because it serves as a reminder that no one is perfect. There is always room for growth and improvement. Being willing to evolve in a public forum can be a challenging notion at first, but ultimately is liberating. It means that your process of learning and growing does not need to be hidden or minimized, but can be shared with your community in a way that helps everyone.
The idea here is that by evolving as a thought leader, you help lead the charge for evolution in your community or industry. You can be the vanguard of change so that others feel safe and inspired to evolve themselves.
How do you evolve as a thought leader?
While thought leaders are known for something specific, and often spend the bulk of their career focused on a few well-developed philosophies or practices, they are constantly evolving their understanding and treatment of the work they do, and the audience they serve.
The idea here is that they never stop learning.
This is where self-confidence and self-assurance can come into play. If we are more focused on our ego, we may not be so willing to continue to learn or test the limits of the ideas we have developed, and move our work or ideas forward. If the ego is what matters, we may be more likely to defend our original idea at all costs.
While thought leaders are certainly known for getting into heated discussions while defending their perspective, they are also always looking at ways to grow and evolve as people, thinkers, and practitioners.
If you’re thinking of ways to continue your evolution as a thought leader, seek out experiences that teach you something new. Whether it’s consuming lots of books, podcasts, research papers, or other media covering your industry, or actively taking classes, or earning new certifications, the consistent push to learn and grow is critical to elevating your thought leadership and continuing to sustain it throughout your career.
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This step in building your thought leadership is perhaps the most challenging, but also the most important. It is what shapes everything else. If you don’t stand for something, then what’s the point? Really.
Uncovering this perspective takes some personal introspection. You might need to do some thinking about the situations or circumstances that have shaped you, that you can’t stop thinking about, that represent inflection points in your life and your career. Sad to say, but often we learn what we stand for by experiencing its lack. Some of the situations in my life that have had the greatest impact on how I view the world, and the values I hold dear, were those that betrayed my core values and left me worse off as a result.
The key is to keep pushing yourself forward, taking risks, and evaluating the outcome that results. What did that risk feel like to you?
How do you decide what you stand for as a thought leader?
Be curious about the strong reactions you have to experiences in your life, or events in your industry. Do you get fired up when you see a particular dynamic play out on social media or among your colleagues? Are there certain people who you feel particularly inclined to help achieve something in their lives?
Get in touch with what drives you and why. And then be determined to keep going deeper. You’ll learn more about yourself, and also have a better understanding of what you’re willing to stand for.
While knowing what you stand for is a necessary, foundational step in becoming a thought leader, building your authority is what transforms you from someone with conviction to a genuine industry influencer. Without earning the respect of your peers, you can’t really call yourself a thought leader.
Note: I never advocate calling yourself a thought leader anyway. We all roll our eyes at the people who have thought leader, visionary, or guru as their headline. Still, I believe that building your thought leadership and aiming to embody these four critical qualities is a noble enterprise.
So how do you earn that respect from your peers and colleagues? There are a number of different pathways to accomplishing this, and I firmly believe that this is a journey, not a destination. But let’s talk through some of the most common and important methods.
How do you build your authority as a thought leader?
Build a powerful personal brand
The idea here is to be publicly known for the work that you do. Think of this as building the metaphorical soapbox on which you will stand and speak your truth. Build a platform that allows you to command attention and communicate your ideas to your audience.
Which platform you choose doesn’t really matter, but it helps to really choose one. Be active on social media, and choose the social platform where your ideal audience congregates, and where you can consistently create content. Start a YouTube channel. Launch a podcast. Send out a regular newsletter. Blog consistently. Write a book. Be a public speaker.
Whatever it is, pick something and stick to it. Most likely you will wind up choosing several of these options and building your authority in a variety of capacities. The key is to put yourself out there, add value to your community, and build a loyal and engaged audience.
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Build a strong personal network
We all know the old adage, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” And while the saying smacks of elitism and the frustrating tension between the haves and have-nots, it’s true. Now, it doesn’t mean you need to know billionaires or have fancy connections. But having a network of movers and shakers in your industry will undoubtedly prove to be one of the most valuable assets you could possibly create for yourself.
Most of the most highly coveted business opportunities don’t get publicly advertised. They are filled because someone knows someone. On top of that, we live in a world that is absolutely drowning in information. Knowing how to rise to the levels we want to reach seems both right in our grasp, and completely obscured, at the same time. When we build friendships with people who have been there before us, charting our path becomes much easier and more straightforward.
On top of that, when our ideal audience sees we’re in the same league as other thought leaders they know, like, and trust, it accelerates our process to earning a similar status in their hearts and minds.
Now that you have a better sense of the qualities that define a thought leader, understanding the pathway to build your own thought leadership should feel more accessible to you. It’s not some ephemeral exercise, but a simple (simple, not easy!) process of cultivating those four qualities.
With some introspection, some courage, and some work, you can chart your own course to being recognized as a thought leader in your industry or community.
What’s more, it should also be obvious this isn’t about vanity or ego. Sure, earning that authority certainly helps with the ego, and there are undoubtedly some very real thought leaders who come across as ego-driven. But ultimately the work is about helping others. About making a difference. About taking a stand for what you believe in. And that feels good.
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