What’s the difference between success and failure? Fame and mediocrity? A faithful following of devoted fans and tumbleweed breezing through your website and social media platforms?

Charisma is certainly a big part of it. Those big personalities that we can’t quite get enough off. We hang off their every word and wish we were half as articulate.

But when it comes to business and entrepreneurship, personality is only part of the equation. Sure, it helps, but the majority of people are savvy enough these days to see through a charismatic yet shallow facade.

They want depth.

They want originality.

They want brands with something new to offer, and personalities with something meaningful to say, that pushes them further along life’s journey than they were before.

And we all want to be that brand, that influencer, who has people hanging off our every word because each syllable is worth saying. Every turn of phrase and subtle nuance casts a slightly different shade on our industry or niche than people saw before. 

Thought leadership is the goal of many. But what exactly is a ‘thought leader’, and how does a normal, not-famous business owner or entrepreneur become one?

Thought Leadership: Meaning, Examples And How To Be A Thought Leader

What Is A Thought Leader?

Trying to define thought leaders or thought leadership is very straightforward, on the surface; a person is a thought leader when they express ideas that demonstrate their expertise. On a deeper level, however, there is considerable complexity involved.

Some are content to simply show they know what they’re talking about. For others, however, it’s about trailblazing, breaking every mould in sight, doing things differently, demonstrating your way is superior, and attracting a following dedicated to your way as a result.

In other words, leading.

Whatever you do, no matter what industry you do it in, you have the potential to become a thought leader, simply by sharing relevant thoughts and ideas that are relevant to your work. It’s a common ambition of many business leaders and execs to become thought leaders in their respective areas. 

Thought leadership brings credibility, prestige, a far more visible profile, and (ultimately) greater profits. It can even lead to the establishment of revenue streams in and of itself. For example, many thought leaders publish books, take on public speaking engagements, and sell their ideas as eCourses.

These revenue streams are not product or service related, they are purely based on an individual sharing their ideas, interpretations, methods, skills, knowledge and experience.

Thought leadership is, in essence, the fine art of making money by being yourself.

If that sounds pretty fucking awesome, it is. And it’s hardly any wonder that most business owners I speak to either throw the term thought leader at me as a challenge or spend considerable time explaining to me what they want to achieve by working with me, only for me to summarise it in two worlds: thought leadership.

So, why doesn’t everyone do it?

Well, in all honestly it takes a considerable amount of patience and dedication. Even if you have that you need an effective strategy in place to make it profitable and successful. And, more than anything else, you need to have something about you to begin with.

You need to have something to say. Or something to share. A uniqueness that genuinely makes your thoughts worthy of the term ‘leadership’, rather than simply being a regurgitation of everything that anyone in your industry already knows.

That’s the hard part.

In order to be considered a thought leader you need three things:

  • Innovative ideas or perspectives
  • Intellectual influence
  • A pioneering attitude

If you’re passionate and knowledgeable about what you do, with an original idea, method, or spin, you shouldn’t have any issues in positioning yourself as a thought leader, provided you have a decent strategy and the patience and dedication to pull it off.

That’s usually where I come in, but I’m getting ahead of myself. 

At the end of the day thought leadership has the potential to be incredibly beneficial for your business or entrepreneurial efforts, and all it really requires, is a willingness to share your knowledge enthusiastically with the world.

Where Did Thought Leadership Originate?

While the phrase has been bandied about since the late 19th century, the term evolved over the following century until it was eventually coined by Joel Kurtzman in 1994. Kurtzman was editor-in-chief of Strategy And Business magazine, and defined the phrase as follows:

“A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”

The salient point here – and the one that, unfortunately, many aspiring thought leaders miss – is the need for originality.

I once worked with a client who frequently ordered me to ‘make me famous’. He desperately wished to be a thought leader, yet he had no originality about him, nothing to work with to craft into a core message.

While he did manage to come up with a fun acronym used to describe his method, the method itself was incredibly derivative.

What he taught was solid, informative, useful, and necessary for his clients. But it was nothing they couldn’t learn on Google, or from any other person in his field.

When gently (and later somewhat more firmly) pushed to consider what he could bring to the table that was unique, what ideas we could use to position him as a thought leader, he drew a blank.

One of two things needed to happen at this point: 

Option 1: He went away, worked on his craft, and came back with some form of unique insight, an original method, or an innovative approach that we could leverage to position him as a thought leader.

Option 2: He paid me (or someone else) to do all that for him.

Since he was unwilling to do either, his efforts to position himself as the trailblazer he envisioned fell spectacularly short.

If you learn nothing else from this article understand this: thought leadership is attainable by anyone with something to say that can’t be heard elsewhere. If your goal is to become a thought leader, you need to invest time, effort, and energy into formulating the intellectual ideas that will underpin your platform as a thought leader.

If you don’t have something original to say, you can pay someone else to think of it for you.

That’s what ghostwriters are for.

Thought Leadership: Meaning, Examples And How To Be A Thought Leader

So How Does It Work?

Industry thought leaders are the pioneers of their niche, yet that doesn’t need to be a daunting prospect. Becoming a thought leader requires discussing the same topics and covering the same areas as others in their industry, but doing it with considerably more depth and meaning

So, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel and come up with a completely revolutionary thing to say. You can look at what everyone else is saying and bring greater depth to the topic. Look at it in more detail. Consider it from a different perspective. Find a way of doing it that’s a little better – more efficient, more effective, or simply easier to understand and manage.

Don’t go basic, go deep. Depth has a way of enriching a subject. Your expertise will shine in that depth, even without originality.

Depth shows understanding, both of what you do and the implications of what you do in the real world, for real people.

For example, one client I worked with recently has two skincare brands, both aimed at the tattoo industry, but each with its own unique ingredient. One brand uses ethically sourced crocodile oil as the key ingredient. The other is a completely vegan product that has baobab oil as the star component.

Neither site was ranking for much of anything when I first started to work with them. The goal was to improve their SEO and raise the visibility of both brands. One of the first steps I took to do this was to elevate their existing descriptions of the benefits of those key ingredients. Each site has a ‘benefits of’ page dedicated to the specific oil that is the core component of their products.

By upgrading the content on these pages from basic descriptions, to deeper considerations of the true benefits of each oil, we began the process of positioning each brand as thought leaders for tattoo aftercare.

Why? Because the USP of both product lines is that core ingredient. The benefits of crocodile oil are genuinely remarkable, and make a product that creates the perfect ‘canvas’ for a tattoo, and helps the skin heal post-tattooing. Beyond that, however, in creating the product they discovered the oil could heal very problematic skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis. This is great from a tattoo preparation standpoint, but obviously has wide-reaching implications for skincare.

Being aware that not everyone is comfortable using animal products, a second brand was developed following a search for an ingredient with equivalent potency that was vegan. The benefits of baobab oil are actually very similar in terms of tattoo preparation and skin healing.

This is a great area for the brands to discuss in the content, as it elevates them.

Most skincare brands list their ingredients and give a few quick examples of their benefits. Crafting a higher-level piece of content to discuss those benefits raises your brand above the competition, both literally and figuratively.

Visitors to websites with higher quality content have greater confidence in a product and view the brand as being more credible. Meanwhile, that content (assuming it’s properly optimised and well written) will start ranking. At the time of writing this, that page of crocodile oil is ranking #1 for its core keywords and driving an unprecedented level of traffic to the site. The baobab oil page has shot from being a non-entity on search results to being on page 2, and I’m expecting it to keep climbing to the top.

Why Is Becoming A Thought Leader Valuable?

Being viewed as an expert with insight and valuable perspectives has intrinsic value. Not only does it help you attract potential customers – remember, high-quality content attracts traffic, interesting ideas get shared – it also convinces people you’re the best person for the job, or that your product is the best choice.

A few key pieces of content can go a long way to establishing yourself as a thought leader. As you can see from the example above, creating just one piece of elevated content for each skincare site made a huge difference.

This is where those sites will be in the SERPs in 12 months when I’ve similarly elevated the rest of their content and added content on subjects they currently have nothing on, that command a lot of traffic from their ideal clients.

Traffic may well be the most valuable thing in the world of online marketing.

Organic traffic even more so, and remember, Google rankings aren’t determined by how much you pay. You don’t pay for them at all. They’re purely organic and determined largely by the quality and originality of your content.

Creating consistent thought leadership content is the easiest and most effective way to maximise your organic traffic.

This, in turn, will naturally increase the number of sales and conversions you get. A percentage of website traffic will always purchase or call or book an appointment. The more traffic you have, the more sales and conversions you have.

That’s just a maths thing.

But beyond that, having a website that effectively positions you as a thought leader has huge value for several other reasons:

  • It boosts your brand’s presence within your industry.
  • It establishes and continues to build your credibility in your niche.
  • It qualifies you as an insightful and reliable source of information for your peers and demonstrates you’re capable of influencing others through your opinions and viewpoints. 
  • It creates more focus in your business and marketing efforts by forcing you to hone in on what you know best, and constantly seek new opportunities to express yourself.
  • It allows you to build a tribe of dedicated followers around your brand who your inspired and guided by you. 
  • It encourages you to think ahead and look at the bigger picture. This can lead to improvements in your own systems, practices, and offerings.

Thought Leadership: Meaning, Examples And How To Be A Thought Leader

Some Of The Best Business Thought Leaders…

If you’re looking for some key or famous thought leaders to quickly stalk for inspiration, here are a few to check out:

Think about the people you follow online for inspiration and information on what’s new in your industry. Odds are those people are also thought leaders.

The interesting thing about all of them is that if you go back far enough they weren’t big famous names with huge followings. 

They were just regular people. 

A girl who started a YouTube channel and used it to fully fund the opening of a successful bakery, recipe books and product line (that would be Cupcake Jemma). 

A woman who wrote a book about how she manifested her dream wedding, then started blogging about money manifestation, then turned it into a multi-million dollar online business (that would be Denise DT).

Marie Forleo started out as a dance instructor who was spotted by a talent scout and given a slot on television which she leveraged into a business teaching other women how to start their own business. Go back and watch her earliest YouTube videos, it’s just her on a sofa. Now she has a studio set and interviews some of the highest-profile people in the entrepreneurial and business world. 

Who Can Create Thought Leadership Content?

This is a bit of a chicken and egg question.

In order to be considered a ‘thought leader’ you need to have demonstrated your expertise, showed you really know your stuff about your chosen field, and put forward original ideas.

This means you need to have created thought leadership-level content before people will see you as a thought leader.

Makes sense.

Until you consider that, surely, you need to be a thought leader in order to create content at that level?

Well, yes and no.

A lot of the time the type of content that puts people on the map as thought leaders – Simon Sinek’s ‘Start With Why’, for example – are created in an effort to establish oneself as a leader with something original to say.

If you don’t start out with the intention of bringing something new to the table, you never will.

So yes, you need to be innovating and creating and thinking of new things long before other people start to see you as a thought leader.

If you don’t, nobody ever will.

This is the part a lot of business owners, entrepreneurs and bloggers struggle with. ‘Little Old Me’ syndrome sets in and they think, ‘But, I’m not a thought leader, I can’t publish content like that!’

And yet, if you don’t publish content like that, you will never become a thought leader.

And in all honesty, the only difference between a ‘thought leader’ and the rest of the madding herd of sheeples is that they actually have the guts to voice new ideas.

Anyone can be a thought leader, with the right content.

And like I said, if you can’t think of anything thought-worthy to say, you can just hire someone to think of it for you.

Or to take the jumble of thoughts and ideas that you do have and articulate them nicely!

Speaking of which, I just happen to be a highly skilled ghostwriter with over a decade of experience writing thought-leadership level content for all manner of businesses. So, if you’re looking to become the next thought leader in your industry, get in touch and let me know what you’re looking to achieve. We’ll put a content plan together to get you there!