I must admit I have a love-hate relationship with the term ‘thought leader’.
Having been a PR practitioner for over two decades, I’ve spent a good part of my professional life helping people – my clients – to become seen as thought leaders in their community, industry or profession.
Notice that I wrote, “to become seen as”. This is because you’re not a thought leader because you say you are; you’re only a thought leader if others think (and tell the world) that you are. In other words, it’s a status that needs to be earned. That’s why positive third party endorsement – as difficult as it can be to attain – is such a powerful thing.
Thought leadership – like authority, personal branding, reputation and expert status – can be quite a nebulous concept. While track record and demonstrated outcomes from your body of professional work will help your cause from an evidentiary perspective, what we’re talking about here are people’s perceptions: What do peers and colleagues, clients, people in your community and the media think of you in a professional sense? Do you share your knowledge? Drive conversations? Lead opinion on topics relevant to your profession, industry and expertise?
In the past thought leaders were considered pillars of their industry; high profile individuals who had a voice and a point of view that people were attracted to. The (traditional) media chased them for quotes and conference organisers sought them out to appear at their events. A chosen few even got to the point where they were well known and respected enough to warrant a book publisher knocking on their door.
In other words, the thought leader was someone who had, through their high-profile vocational work, networking and personal branding activity, succeeded in getting past the ‘gate-keepers’ (journalists, editors and producers; conference organisers; publishers) which in turn further fuelled the elevated status they enjoyed in their community, profession or industry.
Editorial exposure in the media sparked interest from the public speaking and publishing fraternities, which in turn fed further media attention, and so the loop went.
But so often the loop was closed and very hard to break into. Established thought leaders were popular with certain sections of the media, while conference organisers often erred on the side of caution and engaged the services of high profile speakers who in turn could put ‘bums on seats’.
Don’t get me wrong: This ‘traditional’ scenario still holds true today. You’re a savvy professional, an expert in your space; you’re known to have a forward view on your subject matter; you start sharing quotes with and/or writing for your industry trade journal (whether you’re invited to do so, or have a PR representative pitching your ideas to journalists).
Get enough media coverage and there’s a good chance you’ll start being asked to appear on panels or deliver a keynote at relevant conferences and events; if you’re okay at it, you will probably be asked to present on a regular basis.
A hallmark of the traditional thought leader was their seemingly inaccessibility to the public. Yes, they would make themselves available to a journalist at a moment’s notice but there was no real mileage to be gained in dealing with the public directly, unless you had a speaking gig to attend.
To be fair, there were no social technologies available at the time to help them interact with the public with scale, but my opinion of many of the better known thought leaders from the pre-social media era is that unlike best-selling author Tom Peters, many haven’t adapted well to the social web – they don’t blog much (if at all), nor do they proactively interact with the public, preferring to use social channels to broadcast news about themselves. The view I have is that it’s all about them, not their community of fans and followers.
The other reason it was difficult for professional individuals to reach the lofty heights that traditional thought leaders enjoyed within their industry was that their reach was often fuelled by editorial exposure. Once a journalist had latched on to an expert who could consistently deliver the goods, they often stuck with them.
This truism you’d think remains the case today as deadline-driven journalists and producers are in constant need of getting their stories locked away – why chase new talent when the tried-and-true will suffice?
Although the other school of thought is that today the media is in constant need of fresh faces and new perspectives, which opens the door somewhat to new and emerging thought leader talent. Don’t forget either the media now extends to blogs and podcasts and online video shows, all of which are keen to interview talented experts who are accessible and willing to get involved, no matter how large the audience may be.
So while thought leaders will continue to emerge via traditional media, I see that increasingly they are being one-upped by more entrepreneurial types who are strategically using social technologies and online publishing platforms to increase their visibility, tell their story, grow their audience and build their personal brand.
Welcome to the world of the New Thought Leader.
Unlike thought leaders of the yesterday, today’s New Thought Leader is digitally savvy; they vigorously and passionately share what they know by creating and publishing their own content on the social web.
More than that, they proactively shine the spotlight on other experts in their space, and curate other people’s content on the web.
They are also more accessible (thanks to social media) and rather than see interaction with the public as something to endure, they actually embrace the opportunity to engage with people who are interested in what they have to say.
Put another way, today’s New Thought Leader uses the tools available to them to take their expertise to another level, plus they bring people along for the journey.
Yes, these New Thought Leaders know their stuff; yes, they have a progressive view and a forward-thinking mindset as well as ideas and opinions of matters relevant to their expertise. But they are also passionate about teaching and empowering people, about drawing others into the fold to discuss their thoughts, ideas and views on the topic in question.
Open and connected
In this way, the New Thought Leader is probably a lot more open, connected and community-minded than their more traditional predecessors. And the fact there are no longer ‘gatekeepers’ in the way – that you can now become your own media channel and communicate directly with your audience – means we will be seeing a lot more interesting, smart and passionate professional people rising to ‘thought leader’ status over coming years.
And yes, they will be the ones the media (and conference organisers and publishers) are drawn to because they will boast not only a solid communications platform but also a growing audience of followers, supporters and advocates of their personal brand and what it is they stand for.