7 ideas to make you a better thought leader

Thought leaders don’t always follow the herd.

Being a thought leader is tougher than it sounds. Thought leaders are either scholars, who have studied their subject in-depth and write and publish extensively on it, or practicing business leaders – including some consultants – whose careers are on the line if they aren’t smart enough in their industries to make the right decisions.

The common denominator in how to be a thought leader is that almost all of them speak or write on the subject.

The self-publishing feature of the digital revolution has opened up the playing field. Now anyone can write and publish their views. That doesn’t make someone a thought leader if they’ve posted 2,342 blog items on Subarus or social media. But the Internet has allowed some real thought leaders to blossom in their respective fields, whether their writings are published on their own sites or on a media site.

So ya wanna be a thought leader? Here are seven tips on how to be a thought leader. They might help you become a new thought leader, or a better one.

1. Read everything you can and stay current in your chosen field of expertise but avoid using jargon.

Every good thought leader learns to sift through all the informational noise in the world and focus on the good stuff. Staying current in your field may seem obvious. What’s less obvious is how few people actually do this. You need to stay ultra-current in your own field and many others as well. You need to read, a lot, and talk to as many smart people as you can.

And don’t use jargon when you do. Many people in business who aren’t really current can’t convey an idea that is more than the latest buzzword they have heard others say. You know, those buzzwords such as “strategy/strategic” (often confused with the term “tactics”); “crowd-sourced” (as opposed to no other piece of knowledge in the history of thought?!); “customer centric” (if you aren’t, won’t your business go down the tubes?) “leading,” (everyone can’t be leading can they?); “methodology” (often confused with method because it sounds better but doesn’t mean the study of methods) and hell, even “thought leader,” which on its face, like every other marketing word, sounds good but in reality is pretty hard to claim, just like when you are “powered” by something, which I still haven’t figured out for the life of me, perhaps showing that I am indeed not a thought leader in the buzzword sense, at least.

A Forbes story contained the following regarding jargon: “People use jargon because they want to sound smart and credible when in fact they sound profoundly dim-witted and typically can’t be understood, which defeats the purpose of speaking in the first place,” says Karen Friedman, author of Shut Up and Say Something: Business Communication Strategies to Overcome Challenges and Influence Listeners (Praeger, 2010).

Have you spoken the word “utilize” instead of “use?” That’s a good indication that you are using buzzwords because they sound more important but convey the fact that you don’t know good English diction. You are trying to BS someone, not invigorate their thinking. It shows that you really aren’t thoughtful or original.

2. Don’t be afraid to be contrarian.

It takes nerve to be a thought leader and mess up the sand castles on the beach. Think for yourself and don’t merely repeat what others have said. It takes a little courage.

This idea relates to the one before it about buzzwords. The smartest people don’t need to follow the herd. They chart their own courses. If that course is controversial, then so be it. Show them your logic and understanding of the issue and convince them to respect your way of thinking.

Here’s a quote that shows how stifling conventional wisdom can be: “Everything that can be invented has been invented,” — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899.

3. Always be aware of the fundamentals of your industry.

Do the best you can to see it for what it is. If your business is raising cows, don’t try to dress them up as sheep.

Here’s an example: One of my clients at CRG Partners in New York, Rob Carringer, wrote an article about the ethanol business. His point was that while the ethanol industry tries to dress itself up as an entrepreneurial, small company sheep – renewable energy, clean burning fuel, a fuel that can be grown at home instead of imported from abroad – it’s really a cow; a commodity-based business that is only for the wealthiest, best-capitalized players that can control their supply chains.

4. Never be defensive.

Be open to ideas and alternatives. I’ve never met a person who was defensive in a meaningful discussion who wasn’t an idiot.

Have you ever spent any time in the company of a true, successful innovative CEO? I have been around and interviewed hundreds of them during my 30-year career in business journalism. The best ones are easy to spot: They are listeners, information hounds. It’s almost like they want to know what each person in the room is thinking. They are always open to different ideas.

Want to be a thought leader? Don’t build a fortress around your mind. You’ll end up falling in your own moat. I am truly blessed to work with my clients. As part of my job I have to intellectually challenge them to push harder, think better and be current on industry developments. The best of them laugh at my challenges. They are up to any type of hard questions and then some.

5. Follow the money.

Points 5 and 6 in regards to assessing people or business organizations or even current events are borrowed from my journalistic background. By following the money, you can analyze with a great deal of confidence any industry, trend or political process.

As Aretha Franklin said in her album, figure out “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” It applies to almost every situation and sometimes leads you to white collar prison.

6. Watch their feet; don’t listen to their mouths.

One of the few things I learned in journalism school at the University of Washington was from a professor who told me to watch not what politicians say, but what they do. He wanted us to learn the rules of making law and then look for something in the political process that was out of the ordinary and find out why. It’s the same in sports or business or politics. It’s not about what you say; it’s what you do that matters.

7. Bust your paradigm.

Philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote in his 1962 work, “The Structure of Scientific Revolution” that scientific paradigms didn’t change as a result of the scientific method that built up knowledge over time.

Most scientific revolutions happened as a result of an observable mistake – an anomaly – that was not supposed to be there according to popular theory. At the same time you are remembering basic fundamentals of your industry; don’t be afraid to look at your industry from another view. After all, what you know and think are products of your language and how you view things through the screen of your collective experience.

Look for ways to analyze your industry from a different view. Test each fundamental of your industry against reality to see if your paradigm holds up. Use outside opinions. For example, how does someone in an unrelated field see the issues in your industry? It might not be useful but something brilliant also might percolate. That’s how to be a thought leader.

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