Thought leadership has become a pretty common buzzword among many industries, and like other popular terms, it’s tempting to dismiss it as a meaningless jargon invented to help people feel more important. Should the term be dismissed as jargon? Well, the answer is “it depends” — the phrase has an important meaning, but just like words such as “expert,” watch out for people using it frivolously. The signs of a real thought leader are easy to spot, but becoming one isn’t such an easy task.
What It Means to be a Thought Leader
The thought leader, a person of cultural and philosophical significance as well as business success, has become an influential type of personality in modern popular culture. This is thanks in part to events like TED Conferences and social media platforms which many CEOs and other business leaders make use of to disseminate ideas. This sort of thing is helping people with ideas spread them, and it helps others learn and grow by exposing them to a variety of experts and field leaders.
Before we dig too deeply into the topic, we should understand what it means to be a thought leader. It helps to pin down the definition of a leader in general. Managers, business owners, and top employees are often thought of as leaders, but not everyone who is a manager is necessarily a leader. Specifically, management refers to the work of organization and coordination of work and processes, according to the Rutgers Master of Business Administration program. Leadership, on the other hand, refers to people who have social soft skills, presence, and inspiring demeanor to motivate employees and improve the work environment.
Leaders also recognize their own shortcomings and seek to improve themselves. Many of the best leaders credit finding a mentor to a good deal of their own success. The mark of a leader includes the willingness to learn, grow, and set ego aside.
A thought leader combines all of these traits with a much more ephemeral and difficult-to-achieve quality: cultural significance. Either in the culture of the business community, a particular region or the world at large, thought leaders become relevant topics of contemporary discussion. Many of the most successful and influential people in business — such as Cheryl Sandberg, one of Fortune’s top women in business — understand the significance of their role in society and actively work to explore important issues. They not only further their own business goals, but they influence how people discuss and think about the topics in which they hold expertise.
Working Like Thought Leaders
A thought leader is one of those descriptors that other people give you. It’s not nearly as impactful if someone uses it to describe themselves without social proof, and even then it seems pretty boastful.
As much as thought leaders are connected to the wider cultural phenomena around them, the skills they use to become successful have humble beginnings: within the workplace. Learning to be a leader takes time, and although there is definitely a natural personality element to leadership skills, like any skill they need to be honed and practiced.
Learning your own leadership style is a great first step. There are all sorts of different ways to lead, and the best leaders try to cultivate at least more than one, in order to adapt to different situations and the needs of other employees. Becoming an agile and thoughtful leader in your own workplace is the first step to take, whether you’re in a management position or not, to becoming a recognized leader.
Another key quality of leaders and thought leaders is that they devote a lot more than just their time on the clock to learning how to be better business people, better leaders, and better thinkers. They read books by other thought leaders. Thought leaders spend their free time gaining knowledge or volunteering or being part of a community they care about. They earn the respect of their peers not just within their companies but in the eyes of the general public through the commitment they display to being part of the world and making their corner of it better by sharing their time and knowledge.
Being a thought leader doesn’t mean you have to annihilate your work-life balance. You don’t have to be working all the time. But it definitely helps to find those things outside of work that make you feel fulfilled, things you can apply your professional skill set to. Lend your expertise as you develop it and be generous with your ideas — you never know who might start listening.