Thinking About Thought Leadership


October 8, 2020

By Dan Ward, APR, CPRC

What is “thought leadership?”

I had an opportunity to ponder that question recently while preparing for a Synapse panel discussion on the topic, a discussion in which I was lucky to join two noted thought leaders – Dr. Deborah Beidel, executive director of UCF RESTORES, and Kena Lewis, APR, director of public affairs and media relations for Orlando Health.

I decided the best way to answer the question is to start with what thought leadership is not: autobiographical. If someone tells you they are a thought leader, a guru, an expert or (heaven forbid) a maven, they aren’t.

Years ago, a former Curley & Pynn employee asked Roger Pynn, “When will I be a counselor?” He responded, “When clients turn to you for counsel.” Thought leaders are those to whom others turn for insight and advice on a topic.

But that doesn’t mean the process of becoming a thought leader is passive. If you want to establish yourself, your boss or your client as a thought leader, there are action steps you can take. Here are three:

Play Your Strengths

If you’re unable to be completely honest with yourself, you’ll never be a thought leader. Assess with a critical eye your greatest strengths and weaknesses. Why are you strong in a certain area? Is it God-given talent, years of focused experience, a combination of the two? Do you understand that topic so well that you can, in the words of The Business of Expertise author David Baker, confidently share 20 details that others may not know?

If so, great. Now focus on getting even stronger. Steph Curry may be the greatest 3-point shooter alive, but he still practices his craft every day to get even better. Challenge yourself to learn even more about your chosen subject. Do your research. Find other thought leaders in the space and learn from them.

Be a “Servant” Thought Leader

Why do you want to be seen as a thought leader? Is it to enhance your personal “brand?” To position yourself for a promotion or new opportunity in your industry? To drive new business? You have to start by identifying your objective. What will serving as a thought leader do for you and/or your company?

The objective will drive how you identify your audiences and the strategies you will use to reach them. But set that aside for now.

This next point may seem counterintuitive. Positioning yourself as a thought leader benefits you, but the more you focus on those benefits the longer it will take for you to see them. Focus instead on your audiences’ needs and how you can benefit them. How can you help them achieve their goals? What advice can you provide that others cannot? How much information are you willing and able to share without asking for anything in return?

If you’re focused on what thought leadership can bring to you, your audiences will see right through it. But when you focus on their needs, they will listen and your reputation will grow.

Be an Aggregator

Don’t assume that you have to be the font of all knowledge in order to be a thought leader. No one expects you to be the ONLY person alive capable of providing insight. But you can be the source of information.

Where do you get information? What resources do you trust? Who do you consider to be thought leaders? Share that information and your audiences will thank you for it. You’ve now established yourself as a resource, someone who can share not only insight on a topic, but also sources for backup and validation.

We’re honored to work with many clients who are seen as thought leaders in their industries, and to help them as they refine and share their expertise. They know there are no shortcuts … thought leadership takes time, effort and resources. And more importantly it takes a thorough and well-defined communications strategy to be effective.

To view a full recording and a summary of the Synapse panel mentioned in this post, click here and here.

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