A recent article on Forbes.com, with the SEO- and listicle-friendly (albeit long-winded) headline, “The Three Big Mistakes Professionals Make Attempting to Become Thought Leaders,” here, is a not-very-novel enumeration of three obvious thought leadership bloopers; to wit, creating content that’s of limited value, poorly distributed, and doesn’t have much to do with the author’s area of expertise (which kind of guarantees a limited value, don’t you think?). While all true, and expanded upon far more insightfully and usefully here, in my colleague Bob Buday’s oft-cited “Competing on Thought Leadership: The Seven Hallmarks of Compelling Intellectual Capital,” the biggest mistake putative thought leaders make, and the one from which all others spring, is trying to become known as thought leader in the first place.
You know who tries to become known? People on reality shows. They want to see themselves on television and be known for being known. That’s a rather pusillanimous ambition and – in the absence of talent – produces a fame that’s very likely to be short lived, at best. (Remember Snooki, from “Jersey Shore”? I didn’t think so.) (And if you do remember Snooki, aren’t you embarrassed?)
So, too, with people who attempt to become thought leaders. To paraphrase our favorite 900-year-old Jedi Master, the esteemed Yoda, you are a thought leader or you are not. There is no attempting.
Recently, a client came to the Bloom Group with the desire to be known as a thought leader in the digital sales space. The client knew all about digital sales; indeed, the client knew everything that everyone else knew. However, the client did not know anything that anyone did not. The ambition to be known as a thought leader burned brightly, but ambition without substance is . . . advertising.
Good advertising can sell anything . . . for a while. But if the product is no good, all the advertising in the world won’t help.
Remember New Coke?
Coming up with novel, useful, and demonstrable insights into a problem, or a solution to one, is not easy. As Yoda says, “Patience you must have, my young padawan.” (A padawan, by the way, is a Jedi trainee.) You need patience to identify problems to which there are no solutions; you need it to learn about the solutions that already are out there and why they’re not working; you need it to gather your thoughts and to turn them into content that others can understand.
Easy, as Yoda might say, this is not.
Instead of trying to become a thought leader, try instead to have thoughts. Yoda says, “You will find only what you bring in.” In other, less gnomic words, you will become recognized as a thought leader if you put the work in to have leading thoughts.
There really isn’t any other way that’s worth a damn.
And, of course, may the force be with you.