The 5 qualities of a thought leader

If everyone’s a thought leader, then no one is. Here are 5 talents to look for when you’re recruiting.

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In “5 things to consider before launching a thought leadership team,” I offered considerations for spinning up a thought leadership team, and provided some guidelines for positioning such a team within your company. Beyond justifying the need for a discrete organization – which, I argued, could pay for itself in both revenue growth and brand enhancement – I suggested that true thought leaders are a rare breed of professional. Here are five immutable characteristics of an effective thought leader. 

1. Can develop a unique point of view about a topic or area

 As a former management consultant, I’m familiar with the drinking game roulette at industry events and tech conferences. It’s tough to avoid mentions of “blockchain,” “digital mesh,” and “augmented… [fill in the blank].” Sure, these discussions are worthwhile when they focus on solving business problems. But sometimes the buzzwords are more compelling than the use cases.

Effective thought leaders understand an emerging technology, trend, or practice to the extent that they might accept its basic principles yet are able to propose a viewpoint that is uniquely theirs.  

This is where the line between thought leadership and innovation often blurs. That’s not a bad thing. Indeed, it’s the thought leaders in those innovation labs – yup, just took a tequila shot! – who can turn a rogue idea into a business process improvement or new product or feature.

2. Is able to present a complex idea in a relatable way

As a thought leader in analytics and data strategy at a software company, Anne Buff had spent hundreds of hours fielding questions from customers and media about the structure of analytics teams. It’s a topic that’s deceptively complex, contingent on a combination of incumbent skill sets, leadership priorities, and corporate cultures.

Buff created three different categories for analytics teams: Light, Medium, and Bold. She used this coffee analogy to effectively communicate three core, yet non-traditional, organizational styles. It not only employed the familiar trope of the morning caffeine fix, it offered simple, approachable frameworks against which executives could evaluate their companies. It was friendly. It was fun. And, above all, it was original. Buff was quickly scooped up by another company needing these skills.

3. Is familiar with fellow experts in the domain

The combination of individual thinking and collaboration is an essential part of thought leadership. Often that collaboration extends beyond the four walls of the thought leader’s own company and into the industry at large.

This doesn’t mean that the thought leader simply parrot prevailing orthodoxies. Rather, a true thought leader is aware of the ideas and theories being presented by others, and can agree, disagree, and reference them in order to argue a case or defend a point of view.

4. Is recognized as an expert by others in the domain

As broad as an industry is, experts within it often know one another. I was once a faculty member for a professional consortium and became friendly with many of my consulting competitors. I monitored their evolving thinking, watched them present, and knew when and how to disagree with them when I did. We were a family of sorts, and I recommended many of them to clients and prospects when I didn’t think I was the best fit. We’d share each other’s blog posts, credit each other’s content, and convene after conference sessions to discuss audience questions and share feedback.

My ideas and content were better for these relationships, and still are.

5. Can develop and deliver long form content

This one’s controversial, but I stand by it. If a good, meaty idea can’t be proposed (or defended) in a substantive and detailed way, then it’s more likely a thought. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you have to have published books in order to be a legitimate thought leader (though many thought leaders are, in fact, book authors). What it means is that you should be able to argue a complex point in writing, not only defending that point, but also working through how it will manifest in the real world. When I say “long form content,” I’m referring to a paper, brief, or yes, a book. (Think 5000 words or more.)

And while I do believe that writing is a critical skill, visual media count here, too. An effective video that advances someone’s understanding or introduces a trend in a fresh new way can become a thought leader’s calling card.

The best thought leaders draw not only from inspiration but from real-world delivery. They know how things work, what the risks of adoption are, and what success looks like. They also understand costs (both tangible and intangible) and can recommend how to move forward. They’ve learned that the best innovations are those that see the light of day. They get that mastery is not in exhaustively thinking things through, but in doing (and, sometimes, re-doing) the work. And they can write and present about all this, putting the pieces together so that the audience is not only engaged, but wants to do something about it. The thought leader’s goal is to see a good idea, well-executed.

And with that I take another sip of tequila. Salut!

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