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Whether you are trying to find investors for your startup or looking to land a big promotion, distinguishing yourself as a leader in your field can do great things for your career. Thanks in large part to social media, the increased connectedness of society, and the near-instantaneous dissemination of information, there is perhaps no title currently more coveted than that of thought leader.
Developing as a thought leader is about more than just having good ideas. Whether you’re an MBA student or are a self-taught expert in your chosen field, you will need to pursue the development of certain traits to earn a reputation as an authority. Students at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business can hone these traits through their Online MBA education.
What is a thought leader?
As the term suggests, a thought leader is a respected authority in a particular field who is known for knowledge of a particular area of expertise. This person—or company—is the one people go to for information on the core principles, as well as latest and greatest developments, of the industry. From blogs to podcasts, professionals have more options than ever before when it comes to getting out their brand and thoughts. As online presence becomes an increasingly important part of establishing authority, thought leadership has become extremely desirable, both for those who want to be seen as a leader and those who wish to learn from this expertise.
Thought leaders can be people of all ages from a variety of backgrounds. All you need is internet access and a particular message to share that will benefit others in your industry. According to Michael Brenner, the head of strategy for NewsCred, the content you are disseminating is the key.
“The source is not as important as the content,” Brenner wrote in an article for Entrepreneur. “Thought leadership doesn’t mean a big name from a big school, it means you provide the best and deepest answers to your customers’ biggest questions in the formats your audience likes to consume them. … Your audience isn’t looking for your content to be differentiated all of the time. They are just looking for the best answers to the questions.”
Traits of a successful thought leader
Though answering important questions for your audience is critical, there is more to thought leadership than simply sharing ideas that you have developed in the course of your career. To achieve this level of success, you will need to develop a number of traits and skills that will benefit both your career and those of your followers as well.
To be a great thought you leader, you should:
1. Balance thinking and doing.
Despite what the term may suggest, thought leadership involves a lot of action. Though intellectual knowledge is important, being out in the field leading the way gives you credibility as an industry leader, according to Denise Brosseau, the founder and CEO of Thought Leadership Lab. In an article for Entrepreneur, Brosseau explained that you should be asking yourself what next steps you can take to build a reputation as a changemaker.
2. Research. A lot.
The internet is an invaluable tool. From podcasts to blog posts, there are a multitude of resources online that can help you expand your knowledge. If you want to be a thought leader, you need to be up-to-date on the latest developments and best practices in your industry so you can not only grow your own knowledge, but educate others as well. You need to live and breathe your subject matter—not just in the office eight hours a day, but in your free time as well.
In some instances, going back to school may help you to excel in this area. For example, earning an MBA can grow your knowledge of many of the latest strategies and topics creating buzz in the business world, giving you an edge over your competition.
3. Tell a story.
Numbers on a page can be helpful, but are they very engaging on their own? To really connect with your audience, you need to be able to tell a story. That is what people are going to remember. But keep in mind that the most impactful stories include numbers. Use data to back up your points to really sell yourself as a thought leader.
You should also be publishing these stories in multiple formats and mediums. Blog posts, podcasts, white papers, social media accounts, and more offer numerous opportunities to get your message to your target audience with minimal cost. Take advantage of these opportunities to get your name out.
“If your work is invisible to the people who matter, you are not serving yourself or the work you have underway,” Brosseau wrote. “Your credibility goes up as others know more about you and begin to trust you. Find opportunities to be seen as an expert and to talk to the media. Create a downloadable white paper, document your ideas in a SlideShare or a Prezi, and share it widely.”
You also need to be comfortable sharing your own story. This kind of vulnerability will help you to connect with your followers, especially if they can relate to certain stages on your own journey to success.
4. Be likable.
Thought leadership is not just about telling people things—it is about having an impact and creating change. To accomplish this, you need to earn your audience’s trust by being likable. Though many of the most successful thought leaders were lucky enough to be born charming, it is always possible to become more appealing. Forbes contributor Jennifer Cohen, who works with executives and entrepreneurs to increase productivity, suggested improving your likability factor by taking an interest in others and lending a hand when you can. When it is clear that you like other people, they will be more inclined to like you in return.
And superficial though it may be, do not neglect your appearance. A good haircut and the right clothes can take you a long way in creating a good impression.
5. Be accessible.
To build a following as a thought leader, you need to be accessible. One of the first ways to do that is through the ways that you communicate. Are you using language that is readable and understandable to your audience? If not, you may be alienating certain members of your industry.
Being accessible also means interacting with your target audience on a personal level.
“If you want to be a legendary thought leader, form deep bonds with your audience by responding to their emails, tweets, and Facebook messages,” Josh Steimle, a speaker, writer, and entrepreneur, wrote in an article for Forbes. “And I don’t mean have your assistant send them a generic response, but send them something they know could only have come from you, and that is only meant for them. They’ll remember it forever, and they’ll become evangelists for your message.”
Depending on the amount of messages, you may not be able to respond personally to everyone. But do your best to engage with your followers in this way. By building real relationships with the people you want to influence, you will be well on your way to a reputation as a thought leader.