Our team has a running joke about what it takes to be a thought leader. We say, “Step one: Have thoughts.”
You’re rolling your eyes, I know. Obviously you need thoughts. This joke is only funny to us as beleaguered agency people. It reflects years of getting requests for help from people who think thought leadership is transactional. “Hey, marketing agency, make me a thought leader!” “Hey, writer, I want to order up a whole bunch of thought-leadership articles.” Or, my favorite, the C-level leader who responded to my simple question about the state of her industry with the honest question: “I don’t know. What would a thought leader say?”
But all snark aside, having thoughts isn’t a problem for most people I encounter. In my experience, the element of thought leadership that’s hardest to crack is the leadership part.
And the leadership part is an essential part of your thought leadership strategy. You can only really be a thought leader if you’re prepared to prioritize perspective, take a stand and keep showing up.
Make Space for Perspective
It’s easy to feel burned out and maxed out at work. Burnout is chronic these days; most people work too much and the to-do lists never end. But working around the clock and never lifting your eyes from your laptop screen or the latest work fire drill makes you a really shitty leader.
Here’s what our workdays look like when we cave to our to-do lists and let overwhelm take over — when we don’t make space for perspective. If any of these things are true for you, you’re probably robbing yourself of the chance to develop your perspective:
- The first thing you look at when you open your eyes is your inbox.
- You rush through your morning routine, with your brain buzzing about all of the projects and tasks you have to get to during the day.
- You have back-to-back meetings all day. Sometimes they overlap.
- You have no time to process or think or decompress.
- You forget to eat lunch until midafternoon.
- You’re anxious and even angry for no real reason.
- You don’t get to look at your top priorities until the very end of the day, when you’re sapped of energy.
- You end the day frustrated, feeling more behind than when you started.
- You’re distracted after work, unable to focus because you’re still ticking through your to-do list in your head.
- It all starts again in the morning.
I’ve been in that place before. It’s an awful way to work, and an awful way to live. But mental health aside, it’s also an awful way to develop perspective and new ideas.
You need space to be a thought leader. You need margin in your day. You need perspective. Time to think, breathe, process, maybe take a walk or read a novel. That might sound like a luxury, but it’s an essential part of being a better leader — whether you’re trying to be a thought leader or not. Leaders need “aha” moments; they need to connect the dots and they need the mental breathing space to reflect on their work and spot patterns.
If you want to develop compelling ideas about the future of your work, start prioritizing perspective.
Take a Stand
My poor inbox is on the receiving end of about 200 PR pitch emails every day. And while there are a lot of interesting perspectives (and really creative PR people) out there, what my inbox tells me is that most people aren’t willing to take a stand. Their ideas run together, and a lot of people are saying the same boring things.
Most people are afraid to say something new, something bold, something that people might not agree with. But being a thought leader is about standing up for your ideas, giving people a new way to think about old problems, and going somewhere other people haven’t gone before.
Want your article to get picked up, or your speaking pitch to be accepted? Make a bolder statement. Say something new.
Lead People in a New Direction
But leading isn’t just about the big idea. The best leaders don’t disappear after they set the course. They stick around, lead their team toward a shared goal and get their hands dirty. Good leadership often is about showing up and being visible.
Thought leadership strategy works the same way. Once you put your stake in the ground, you can’t just hope that people gather around your idea and agree with you. You have to keep showing up, and show them the way. That might mean carving out 20 minutes a day to show up on the social media platform where your peers spend their time. A lot of thought leadership these days is happening through Twitter replies and LinkedIn comments, and if you don’t show up, there’s no way you can lead the conversation.
This vision of thought leadership — gaining perspective, taking a stand and showing up as a leader — also creates a more inclusive definition of what it means to be a thought leader. You don’t have to be a CEO or a startup founder or have 30 years of experience to be a thought leader. You just have to (step one) have thoughts and (step two) be a leader.
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