There’s a lot of talk about thought leadership. Many nonprofit organizations and leaders often speak about ways to position themselves as “thought leaders” in their respective fields or service areas. The term “thought leader” is slightly deceiving. It means more than just producing good ideas, speaking at conferences, or attracting new followers to a social media network to share insight on a topic. In the nonprofit community, thought leadership does more than simply inspire a feeling of connection to cause or movement. Thought leadership inspires action by demonstrating success. Thought leadership moves the needle forward to address social, environmental, economic, or other change.
What’s more important is that you can’t just wake up one morning and declare yourself or your organization a thought leader. Thought leadership takes time, sometimes many years, to develop. I offer a few thoughts on how to begin the process of becoming a thought leader.
Become an expert.
Thought leaders are sought after experts in their field or industry. That means they have spent, often times many, years learning about their subject matter. This learning is continual. A very wise professor once told me that the more you learn about a field of study, the more you realize you don’t know. Experts understand that because the world is ever-changing, knowledge is not stagnant. To maintain their expert status, thought leaders (and any leader for that matter) must continue to learn.
Every form of leadership requires followers. In the area of thought leadership, people not only listen to the ideas of thought leaders but they also work to put some of those ideas into action. I may listen to a person’s ideas and pontifications about a subject or cause for which they care deeply, but I only become a follower if I decide to take what I’ve learned and put that learning into action.
Thought leaders must be able to demonstrate success. People want to follow people and organizations that have achieved success. You must be able to connect your ideas to actions that have produced results.
Sometimes lightning strikes and a person achieves great success, however, they can’t repeat that success – a one-hit-wonder so to speak. To claim your space in the world of thought leadership, you should demonstrate that your knowledge of the subject matter translates into actions that establish best practices. Further, these best practices can be adopted by others seeking to achieve a level of success in your focus area.
Just as thought leaders should engage in lifelong learning, they should never stop innovating. Economies change, political landscapes change, people change, technologies change and with all of the changes to external environments, thought leaders must recognize ways in which they should change. This may require a complete 180 of a strategy that worked five or even one year ago, or could involve complete revamps of programs that were once tremendously successful. However, leaders of any variety must be willing to innovate.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few thoughts. The bottom line is… don’t just think about it, don’t just talk about it, and don’t just do it once. Thought leaders are consistent but also willing to think beyond the obvious, proven solutions to find new ways to solve problems. Now go forth and change the world!