When Joel Kurtzman coined the term “thought leader” to describe someone whose ideas “merited attention” in 1994 for Strategy + Business magazine, who could have foreseen the influence the phrase itself would have on entire industries—and even the world?
As thought leadership has become part of our vernacular and seemingly everyone is gunning to have their ideas heard, how do you know who merits attention—and how do you stand out from the crowd? Here’s what thought leadership is (and isn’t) and how to rise to the top.
What is a thought leader?
Thought leaders are successful individuals in their fields who are recognized by others as authorities. They are considered the go-to opinion leaders and most trusted resources for their inspirational ideas.
Thought leadership has grown so significantly as a concept that it is difficult to encapsulate the myriad perspectives on what it is and who qualifies as a thought leader. Generally, though, to be a thought leader, one’s impact must be far-reaching beyond members of her own industry. For example, Malcolm Gladwell’s ideas about social science and psychology don’t exist solely within those circles; many people who are not involved with the disciplines have read his books and listened to his talks and podcasts.
What’s the difference between thought leaders and influencers?
Historically, two types of online personas, the influencer and the thought leader, may have been synonymous. (Historically in this case, of course, doesn’t extend too far back.) However, in today’s marketplace, they describe different types of business and marketing trends.
Thought leaders tend to appear on platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter. They spread their messages through articles, books, blog posts, forums, and other, generally written, means. You may also see them on platforms like TED Talks and more serious-minded YouTube channels.
Influencers, on the other hand, tend to deal more exclusively with visual media. You’re more likely to find them on Instagram or YouTube promoting products as opposed to writing about ideas. They serve as brand sponsors, using products in everyday life, rather than generating new opinions or dominating a global conversation.
Both types of personas can be used effectively as marketing tools and platforms but often for different purposes and types of brands. Sometimes, the terminology overlaps. For example, LinkedIn Influencers are an invite-only group of some of the most respected thinkers, entrepreneurs, leaders, innovators, and creators across industries—a description that would certainly characterize thought leaders.
Who is a thought leader?
Below is a list of thought leaders in different industries. This list is by no means comprehensive in terms of the people included and industries represented.
Business and Marketing
Best known for co-founding The Huffington Post and serving as its editor-in-chief, Arianna Huffington is noted for contributing to and commenting on important global dialogues. She previously served as a conservative commentator, though her political views have since changed. Today, she focuses on her health and wellness startup, Thrive Global.
• Seth Godin
Seth Godin has engaged in and founded several business ventures, including Seth Godin Productions, a book packaging company, and Yoyodyne, a marketing company. He used his experience to write 18 bestselling books about business and marketing, including The Icarus Deception, which was published as the result of a Kickstarter campaign. He also has a blog and podcast.
• Tony Robbins
Best known for his infomercials and seminars—and for being a famous self-help guru—Tony Robbins founded several companies and authored numerous self-help books.
Praised by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and others, Marie Forleo built her business coaching practice, Marie Forleo International, from the ground up while taking on odd jobs and waitressing and bartending gigs. She has since launched MarieTV. She is also the author of Make Every Man Want You: How to Be So Irresistible You'll Barely Keep from Dating Yourself!
• Amanda Nguyen
A rape survivor, Amanda Nguygen founded Rise, a nonprofit that seeks to protect the civil rights of other survivors the year after graduating from Harvard University. She and her organization were the driving force behind the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act.
• Dan Pallotta
Entrepreneur and activist Dan Pallotta is best known for essentially creating the multi-day charitable event industry. He is the founder of AIDS Rides and the Charity Defense Council, the author of several books including Uncharitable, and a noted speaker, particularly for his 2013 TED Talk.
• Sasha Dichter
Longtime philanthropy and social change advocate Sasha Dichter created Generosity Day with friends in 2011, a subject he discussed in his 2010 TED Talk. Today, he is the chief innovation officer of Acumen Fund, which seeks to combat poverty.
A notable voice in the self-help space, Gabrielle Bernstein is a yoga and meditation instructor and motivational speaker. She spreads her messages through platforms include her app, Spirit Junkie; YouTube, live events; and books, such as Judgment Detox: Release the Beliefs That Hold You Back From Living a Better Life.
• Gretchen Rubin
A former clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Gretchen Rubin left her law career behind to become a writer on happiness. Today, she is considered an authority on helping people lead happier lives through books including The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun and shares her insights on her app, Happier.
• Simon Sinek
Motivational speaker and organizational consultant Simon Sinek is well-known for his talks on leadership, including the TED Talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action. He is also the author of five books, including Start With Why.
• Lolly Daskal
Lolly Daskal, author of the bestselling book, The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You And Your Greatness, is an expert on leadership and entrepreneurship. She is the CEO of Lead From Within, which offers leadership development programs.
How to become a thought leader
Thought leaders come from different backgrounds and have a variety of niches and specialties, but one key commonality is that they don’t call themselves thought leaders. To become a respected authority, other people need to consider you as such. That said, here are some steps to take to become a thought leader:
1. Hone your brand and message.
Having a personal brand will help you define and articulate your cause, values, and principles. Make it consistent across social media accounts and websites, even personal ones like Facebook.
2. Find a platform for your ideas.
Start sharing your opinions with your network or online via a blog, website, or social media account. Make sure your perspectives are well-researched and backed by facts; this will enable you to become a credible resource.
3. Develop your network and work with established thought leaders.
Establishing yourself as a thought leader takes time, and in the meantime, you should work to grow your platform to reach more people. Working with already respected leaders in your industry can help. Reach out to mentors and connections for advice and to test out ideas. Attend events and workshops to help you grow your network and meet authorities in your field.
4. Offer unique insights.
The key to being an effective thought leader is having something new to offer. Find out what the other perspectives on issues you want to speak to exist so you’re not regurgitating already established opinions. Take the time to be thoughtful and develop an interesting spin on a topic, no matter what your industry or niche.
5. Keep growing.
Becoming an expert takes patience and work. Look for opportunities to evolve as a leader and thinker, such as going to seminars, taking classes, and attending networking events. There’s no quick path to becoming a thought leader; if it were easy, it wouldn’t be so coveted.
Thought leader marketing
Many businesses use content from individual thought leaders or attempt to establish the brand itself as a thought leader through articles, videos, podcasts, and other media. This type of marketing can be effective, sometimes more so than straight advertising, because, if done well, it can draw significant engagement. Many people also find this type of content more organic than advertising.
For example, REI offers a blog and video content with expert advice on outdoor adventuring. This helps establish the outdoor equipment company as an authority, in turn attracting potential customers.