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"Creativity is the new currency, so, are you credited with new thoughts or overdrawn in old thinking?" Onyi Anyado, entrepreneur, author, and coach.

If there's one term that's come of age in the last few years, it's "thought leader." We frequently throw it around in the business community, associating it with giants like Malcolm Gladwell, Rita McGrath, John Maxwell, Seth Godin, Daniel Coleman, Peter Drucker... But what does thought leader actually mean? And do you need a big name to generate big ideas?

Defining Thought Leadership

Denise Brosseau, author of Ready to Be a Thought Leader? How to Increase Your Influence, Impact, and Success, defines a thought leader as:

"...informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their fields of expertise. They are the trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success."

Art Kleiner, former editor-in-chief of strategy+business and thought leader in the field of thought leadership, began with the assumption that "most business leaders have something to say that is worth saying."

You don't have to be a Malcolm Gladwell, a Daniel Pink, or a Susan Cain. Anybody can become a thought leader if they truly have something to say - and they take the time to figure out how to say it clearly, articulately, and in a way that resonates with their audiences.

Moving Knowledge Forward

The goal of these communications - of thought leadership itself - is to move knowledge forward. It's the leader's way of creating value. Imagine working on a manufacturing line. You add your piece to whatever is coming down the line, whether it's putting on the door or installing the wheels. You contribute. Thought leadership is taking knowledge and, in a sense, adding the value of your viewpoint, and sending it down the line to others.

This doesn't mean every thought is going to be great or usable; even Peter Drucker must have had a few duds! But, overall, thought leaders contribute to the knowledge value chain. In a world that is as interconnected as this one, the ability to move learning forward is incredibly powerful. And the more people you engage, the faster that "manufacturing" line goes and the more knowledge you create.

The How

Thought leaders deal in the currency of creativity, as Anyado says, and they take it a step further. Kleiner believed that their most critical role is translating ideas and "turning them into communications that are clear and actionable."

He created a framework that allows leaders to become thought leaders by addressing four key facets:

  • Purpose. What are you trying to achieve with your idea or communication? What is your vision? What will it get you - and what will that get you?
  • Audience. Who are you trying to reach? Are they prepared to hear your message? What do they believe? What are their assumptions? How will they benefit from your idea - and how will they lose?
  • Research. How do you know your idea is feasible? What information or evidence do you have to substantiate it? How are you challenging your own assumptions?
  • Story. How do you craft a message that resonates with your audience? How do you make your idea compelling to them?

By considering each of these facets when crafting an article, whitepaper, presentation, or pitch, leaders can effectively communicate their ideas. Further, they're more likely to achieve the buy-in they need to translate them into action. There's a reason they're called "thought" leaders - they think, carefully and extensively, before they speak , write, or act.

In the knowledge economy, thought leaders provide a key competitive advantage. Using Kleiner's framework, every leader can - and should - strive to create value for their organizations. When you have something worth saying, this methodology will help you say it effectively and with authority.


Larry Hart

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