6 Tips to Become a Thought Leader (aka How to Be a Big Deal)

UPDATED: October 7, 2015
PUBLISHED: October 6, 2015

The term “thought leader” is a business buzzword that’s thrown around a lot—a whole lot. But what does it really mean and how do you become one?

“Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise,” writes Denise Brosseau, CEO of Thought Leadership Lab and author of Ready to Be a Thought Leader? “They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; [they] turn ideas into reality and know and show how to replicate their success.”

While thought leaders can come from diverse backgrounds, not just anyone can become a thought leader: “Thought leadership takes time (sometimes years), knowledge and expertise in a particular niche, a certain level of commitment, and a willingness to buck the status quo or the way things have always been done,” Brosseau says.

So thought leaders are visionaries. They delve deep into their areas of expertise. They make evolutionary and revolutionary advancements in their fields. And people listen to them. People trust them. Why? Because they have built a foundation for success—their brand.

Brand is the lifeblood, the soul, of every business. It resides in the hearts and minds of consumers based on their direct experience with your product or service. Just like thought leadership, building a brand takes time. It’s an interactive experience—and you can create it, but you don’t own it.

Seth Godin puts it this way: “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection and spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.”

So, essentially, building a polished and powerful professional brand is the foundation for creating value and the genius behind thought leadership. How well you develop brand is deeply connected to your ability to establish yourself as a thought leader, aka a big deal.

Here are some do’s and don’ts to help you connect the dots:

Do become an expert.

Competence is critical. You cannot afford to dabble or skim the surface. Master the core subject matter with fluency so that you can deliver optimum value to your clients. Get the academic credentials, certifications and experience that will secure your expertise and bolster your credibility. Also, become a voracious reader in your core area.

Do differentiate.

The market is flooded with people in every industry who want to stake a claim. In short: It’s noisy out there. Cut through the noise by showing your unique value proposition—how you are different and how you make a difference. Don’t do or say what everyone else does. Wrong move. You’ll simply get lost in the abyss.

Do the work.

Building your brand with an eye toward thought leadership is work. But don’t shy away from it. You’ll have to stay up late, get up early, speak and write ad nauseam, agonize over projects, celebrate success and endure failure—but it’s all worth it. Develop a strong work ethic from the outset. It’s the only way you’ll get results.

Don’t label yourself a thought leader.

Remember that the idea of brand resides with the consumer. They will let you know when you have “arrived,” not the other way around. It’s amateurish and smacks of arrogance to put it in your bio and marketing materials. And the pros see it from a mile away. Resist the urge.

Don’t believe the hype.

Content is not king and it won’t make you one either. Remember that what makes you valuable is how you distinguish yourself in the marketplace. Content is everywhere—insight isn’t. Don’t flood the market with the “same old stuff” that the so-called gurus are putting out. Mine for your own gold and search for your unique voice.

Don’t think it’s all about you.  

Your focus should always be on delivering value and helping others. Your ego should never be part of the equation. When you help others achieve what they need, you also get what you need. That’s why fame and fortune is never an issue for those who focus on delivering greater value.

Use these tips to connect the dots between brand and thought leadership. It’s an important correlation that should be made early on and one that will help your business take flight. ​

A leading authority on leadership development and organizational performance management, Karima Mariama-Arthur brings more than 25 years of comprehensive, blue chip experience in law, business and academia to every client engagement. A shrewd advisor to distinguished organizations from DC to Dubai, her expert insights help clients to successfully navigate today's ever-changing and competitive global business environment. Karima is the author of the internationally acclaimed and 2019 NAACP Image Award nominated leadership guidebook, Poised For Excellence: Fundamental Principles of Effective Leadership in the Boardroom and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan), which launched at the United States Military Academy at West Point. As an extension of her work, she speaks regularly both nationally and internationally in her areas of expertise and serves in an advisory capacity on select corporate boards.