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What Makes a Thought Leader?

What do The Guru, The Expert, The Maven, The Trailblazer, The Leading Light, The Practice Leader, The Heavyweight, The Opinion Shaper, and The Influencer all have in common? These are all other examples of what to are commonly referred to as “Thought Leaders.” Some may say it’s the latest buzzword by calling experts and influencers "Thought Leaders," but buzzword or not, Thought Leaders have been around way before the buzzword came to use.  Thought Leaders are the go-to expert among industry colleagues and peers. They are the influencers that lead direction within an organization, and sometimes they can be that leading light in your department that innovates new ideas and visions. Thought Leaders are often not in direct line of the management chain, but instead complement management and lead through example to execute vision and goals.

Not All Thought Leaders are the Same

The saying “One size does NOT fit all” can also refer to Thought Leadership because not all Thought Leaders are the same. Some Thought Leaders are about cutting-edge trends while others are there to inspire others. However, most Thought Leaders are experts in a field or industry and sometimes have a stance on a particular topic. They look beyond the business agenda and see the overall picture because every industry is constantly evolving. Being able to have insight in the trends and applying them to achieve and deliver results is part of the equation. You must be able to lead others and want to develop them as people not just players on a team.

When someone asks me how they can become a Thought Leader, I tell them this isn’t about you, it’s about others. When you help others by sharing your knowledge and experiences, all that other stuff will naturally come. Thought leadership status isn’t obtained through a single article or social media post on Twitter or LinkedIn. It’s something that you build your experiences and create credibility among your followers or your team at work. Experience takes time. Experience also means not only learning but listening to others. Everyone has different ideas and opinions, and being humble to listen and understand others is a critical part of the learning process. Thought Leaders don’t have all the answers and they are constantly learning themselves.

Credibility does not always mean obtaining all the latest industry certificates. While it can help, it’s not everything because having real life experiences is just as important. Someone that has all certifications in the industry but doesn’t have any applied real-world experiences will probably not get the same credibility as someone with 15+ years’ experience and fewer certifications.

Being the “Go To” person means defining trends or topics and showing your followers how they can take that knowledge to go farther with it. Once you are there it doesn’t stop either because you will need to continue to be involved and learning, otherwise your followers will eventually stop following you for guidance and that “vision.”

It’s About Others

I still get shocked sometimes when people refer to me as a Thought Leader. The reason why is because I didn’t set out to become a thought leader. What I wanted to do and still want to do is make a difference in the world and company I work for and to my coworkers and peers. I wanted to help others be successful by sharing any knowledge or skills that I may have. My hope was that by sharing my experiences others can be empowered to better themselves. Early on in my IT career, a manager gave me the best advice: sharing your knowledge will make you more valuable and it will motivate you to learn more. I have since kept that advice and use it daily. 

Level 13

Good Article - Thought leading. I have to say the company I worked for after leaving school were not interested in how many qualifications they were more interested in whether you could do the job. I remember one Manager for the company telling me he'd berated others on a training course because all they could talk about was the next set of qualifications they were going for. He said that he would not have employed any of them because they were showing him that they were only interested in their next job and not in working for the current employer.

Level 14

Excellent article.  I enjoyed this one immensely and can fully relate to it.

Level 13

Thought provoking as usual .

One of the things that has bothered me for pretty much my entire career is how few people actually think about anything.  They react, or fire fight ( or worse create fires), or learn one way of doing something and then act as if that solution will be the only one they need the rest of their careers.

Thought leaders are like Wayne Gretzky was in hockey - they aren't skating to where the puck is, they're skating to where it's going to be. By anticipating problems and having crafted plans to address them before they happen, they are seldom caught off guard and have a well thought out menu of options to deal with things as they come.

Thought leaders are a force multipier - they are not only high quality in and of themselves, but they make everyone around them and the organization as a whole much more effective.

I immediately thought of the world's current national leaders, quickly ticking off positive and effective leaders and ones that are  . . . not so positive or effective.

Perhaps a requirement for there to even BE a thought leader is people who are interested, who are affected by certain styles of communication, by specific thoughts.

Maybe there should be another buzz-word to describe these folks.  "Thought-followers?"  "Sheep?"  "The masses?"  "Those-who-jump-on-bandwagons?" 

It seems that becoming a thought-leader may not require "good" thoughts; it might just be the result of focusing on a popular topic or problem, and then letting the masses promote that person as their current thought-leader.

Level 16

I think some key components to this are being a good listener, being flexible and not tied to a single solution and getting a good 50,000 foot view of the entire process before getting down in the weeds on any single subject.

Once you get the overall big picture you can then break the process down into smaller items to solve.


it always feels like some thought leadership needs the added push of a thought cattle-prod, or a thought carrot-on-a-stick.

For some organizations it almost feels like a thought grenade is needed, but even the largest of immovable objects starts to shift in the end.

Level 13

LOL - thought grenade.  Love it.

Who knew a "thought grenade" was even a thing?

Peter's Thinking Grenades - YouTube




Cool article

Is that thing that Doug Quaid had to stick the "self-guiding" doohicky up his snoz to retrieve?  Darned good thing he didn't accidentally pull the pin!  <KAKAKAKABOOOOM!> "Uh, cleanup on aisle five...gray matter, bone shards, lotta red stuff."

This is a wonderful article, exchangegoddess,  and very thoughtfully written.  It is a crying shame that more companies do not seek out "Thought Leaders" and TRUE "Transformational Leaders"; those who want to really want to affect change in the world and the company.  It has been my experience, sadly, that the old "silo" mentality is still very alive and well in Corporate America.  People "hoarding" data and knowledge so they are the only ones with the answers is an all-too common scenario.  And why?  To keep their jobs, of course.  They are scared spitless that if they let out what they know they will be replaced.  They don't see past their own paycheck.

I'm certain that you have read the book "Good To Great" by Jim Collins.  One of my favorite passages from the book is where Jim talks about the philosophy of "get the right people ON the bus, the wrong people OFF the bus, and the RIGHT people in the RIGHT SEATS".  Too many stodgy "leaders" are so intrenched in their positions at some companies that this will never happen.

But hey, we can dream, can't we? 😄

Level 20

Everyone ends up knowing who the thought leaders are because they are the ones people go to when they need help or information.

Level 10

So very true ecklerwr1

Level 14

Good article.

Here we have people who think they are leaders but are just leading us down blind alleys and up the garden path.  They won't listen when we tell them that they are wrong and then blame everyone else when it all goes pear shaped.  I have worked for some really good thought leaders but they are sadly few and far between.

Level 15

I totally agree.

Level 14

I think we have all worked in places where a "Leadership Vacuum" exists.

True leaders constantly play to their teams strengths to help move their teams forward. Encouragement, respect and focus are the basic traits of most leaders. Bosses tell... Leaders ask!

I have a rule I follow... Never ask any member of my team to do anything that I have not done or would not do... simple and effective.

Level 8

Thanks for posting this!

Level 10

Very interesting!!!

Level 13

Good article.  Thanks.


Leadership happens in may ways and at many levels. We all have areas where we can be leaders.

Level 12

thanks for the article