It’s not difficult to become an expert. All it takes is commitment, application and, if you are a follower of Outliers author, Malcolm Gladwell, around 10,000 hours of deliberate practise.
The business world is teeming with experts: experts in law, finance, management, technology, data, change management, leadership…
A proportion of these experts claim to be, or aspire to be, thought leaders. Some are, or will achieve that aspiration. Many more will not.
So what makes a thought leader?
Writing for Forbes, contributors Russ Alan Prince and Bruce Rogers argue a person is not a thought leader “unless they are capitalising on the dramatically enhanced brand equity attained by being [one]”.
We don’t agree.
Thought leaders don’t always capitalise on their status. They aren’t necessarily motivated by ego or financial rewards. If they were, they’d all be the highest paid individuals in their fields; and all be working for a relatively finite pool of best-in-class organisations and institutions.
Michael Brenner offers an alternative definition:
“At its core, thought leadership is a type of content marketing where you tap into the talent, experience and passion inside your business, or from your community, to answer the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience on a particular topic.”
Yes, thought leadership is one (arguably the most valuable) type of content marketing. Being perceived to be a thought leader builds brand, reputation, credibility and trust. (In contrast, content marketing is all about driving sales.) However, to Michael Brenner’s definition we would add that thought leaders don’t just solve the obvious questions. When at their best, they pose, and seek to answer, the questions that their audiences might not have even considered.
A Thought Leader Has Four Distinct Traits
In our view, four criteria distinguish thought leaders from run-of-the-mill experts:
Whereas subject matter experts are adept at reflecting on what was and commenting on what is, they’re often unwilling to speculate. Thought leaders, on the other hand, display both historic knowledge and futuristic thinking. On this point, we agree with Prince and Rogers: “Thought leadership is about making history“.
Thought leaders are motivated by their passion for their interest area, not (just) the reputational and financial fulfilment that can come as a by-product of being a respected and influential thinker. The passion that motivates thought leaders also drives them to grow their audience. Software company Cison expressed it well: you’re not a leader if you have no one to lead.
It’s not thought leadership unless you express an opinion. Experts are great at interpreting, comprehending, applying – for example, legislation, decisions, research… They will churn out content (content which is subsequently often virtually identical to that of their competitors). They fuel the content marketing machine yet are often so risk averse they won’t offer a point of view. Expressing an opinion takes the confidence and courage of a thought leader.
— Market Expertise (@MarketExpertise) May 11, 2016
Subject matter experts can be selfish. After all, knowledge is power – and a source of revenue, in many cases. Thought leaders, on the other hand, are generous. They are responsive to the media; available to speak at industry events; and willing to share their insights.