One helpful tip for your social media bios: Don’t put the words “thought leader” in them. If you do, you’ll have people recoiling in fear.
While it’s not the worst idea to brandish your accomplishments, especially those you’ve worked hard to earn, there are some in particular that just come off as egotistical. Arrogantly claiming you’re a genius or a thought leader can turn people off. The title is attributed to you by others, not something you can claim for yourself, so putting it in your social media bios can be a red flag (for others).
And even if people have given you that title in the past, flaunting it can come off grating and conceited—not the most attractive of attributes. Calling yourself a thought leader or any flashy title makes people doubtful and uncomfortable even if the claim isn’t baseless – it’s just not the most tasteful thing to do.
A lot of self-appointed thought leaders tend to be unaware or purposefully ignorant of how disingenuous they sound, leading plenty to believe that they aren’t as smart as they think they are. And you definitely don’t want to seem like that.
Think of Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group. When was the last time you heard him call himself a thought leader? That’s right, never (or at least we can’t find reference to it). As somebody who’s spent years shaking up an entire industry, moving into others, empowering his staff, and writing dozens of books, it’s obvious that he is one, but others say it on his behalf instead.
Compare him to a modern-day wannabe Ted Talk speaker who brazenly claims they are one even if their experiences and accolades barely resemble Branson’s. Who are you going to listen to?
So instead of calling yourself a thought leader, take the necessary steps to actually be one.
The era of the self-proclaimed
Singing one’s own praises isn’t new and, therefore, the distaste for it isn’t either. A lot of influential people have stepped up to proclaim themselves the best, the smartest, and other superlatives that it comes off pretentious. Some people take it the wrong way at best and others launch into full attacks, social media criticism, and even entire books at the very worst.
Take ex-US president Donald Trump for example. Remember how he took to Twitter to tell everyone that he was “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius”? It wasn’t exactly received well and social media took to mocking him. A book was even written with that same phrase as its title, chronicling his time in office.
But here’s the thing: Actual smart people don’t need to say they’re smart. People who are good at something don’t need to toot their own horn. Their accolades speak for them. Humility goes hand-in-hand with success. Even the people who have been lauded as the greatest, strongest, or smartest are aware of what they still can accomplish and learn. It’s like saying you’ve reached the peak and there’s nowhere else to go—which, of course, is wrong.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is an interesting lens to look at self-proclaimed “bests,” too. It’s a cognitive bias that makes a person overestimate their abilities because low-ability people are unable to comprehend or are just wholly unaware of how incompetent they really are. Charles Darwin puts it bluntly in his book “The Descent of Man,” saying, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” and we couldn’t agree more.
Why you shouldn’t call yourself a thought leader
Aside from the simple matter of infuriating your audience, arrogance from calling yourself a thought leader can turn people off from what you actually have to say. The audience you want to connect with will probably trust you less, resulting in fewer readers, viewers, and listeners which, ultimately, is bad for business.
You want to reach your target market and prove to them that you’ve got the intelligence to back up your claims. You don’t want to drive them away, especially if you really do have some great, thought-provoking ideas and opinions to share.
To an extreme degree, without an audience to communicate with, you end up losing credibility and authority and position your business as one that isn’t able to solve the problems of its consumers. Let your work speak for itself and let others give you the title when you’ve earned it.
Plenty of true thought leaders in different industries have identified humility and a willingness to learn (which necessitates humility) as some of the most important things to being a true thought leader. And the title wasn’t self-given, it was recognised by others who praised them for their ideas, their work, and how they carried themselves.
When it comes from other people, your status as a thought leader is more trustworthy. It’s the concept of social proof—a company can make claims all it wants about its own product being the best of the best, but a consumer is still more likely to trust in another person’s experience of that product because it’s free from any bias. The same thing applies to your perception of yourself. While you might think that you are brilliant, like how a company loves and praises its own product, it’s better to let other people (or your accomplishments) speak for you instead.
What is actual thought leadership?
When someone calls you a thought leader, they recognise more than just your expertise in your field but also how you can contribute and shape conversations about it. You have innovative ideas on how things work and forward your claims and opinions with research and statistics to back them up.
A thought leader is a trusted source that finds repeated success in providing new ways to think about things. They’re engaging, enlist others in changing the way people see the world, and can make a significant difference in and possibly even beyond their industry.
While it’s possible to be one, it demands a ton of commitment, expertise, and knowledge about a specific niche. This can take years of experience. After all, the only time you can successfully challenge something and break its rules is once you’ve understood them all.
But it’s a process worth undertaking. Being a thought leader gives you and, ultimately, your business more credibility and authority.
One example is Lolly Daskal, bestselling author and founder of global leadership and consulting firm Lead From Within, who has been celebrated as a thought leader by several publications and is globally recognised for her executive coaching. As a columnist for different business websites, she’s familiar with the business leadership world and has enough expertise in it to communicate new, thought-provoking, even rule-breaking ideas. As someone who’s had more than three decades of experience, bestselling books, and the credentials to back everything up, her status as a thought leader is undeniable.
Thought leaders don’t order their people around, they collaborate with and encourage them. They don’t base their operations on what they say at conferences or TED Talks, they work on how they run things from the inside out rather than arrogantly telling their employees to run the business like how they presented it in their latest speaking engagement. They also don’t have inflated egos because successful leaders practice humility in order to listen better, accept faults and criticism, and improve themselves.
What are you really trying to say?
It’s not a bad thing to want to be considered a thought leader. You want to position yourself as an authoritative voice, as a real mover and shaker in your field. You might even already have some fantastic ideas that challenge the status quo of your niche with the experience you have now. In fact, you may be exhibiting signs of being a potential thought leader.
If you’re truly passionate about what you do, other people are coming to you to pick your brain because they think you have great ideas, and your audience is keen to hear from you, you may be on the right track—but how can you communicate what you’re thinking?
It can be difficult to articulate your thoughts, especially revolutionary ones that have never been talked about before. Without anything to compare your ideas to, it can be hard to gauge if you’re making any sense. Which necessitates asking for help (a crucial step—remember that leaders are humble enough to know when they need help) with creating good content that illustrates the important things you want to say.
5 steps to authentic thought leadership
In pursuit of true thought leadership, you have to work on gaining credibility through well-researched opinions and ideas that are translated into content. These five steps can boost your authority, set your ideas apart, and provide you with a blueprint for thought leadership.
1. Review your industry
Analysing your industry is a crucial step because you need to know your competitors, what the atmosphere is like in your industry, and any threats that could potentially affect your business. Being able to get a feel of what’s going on in your line of work can give you an idea of what kind of pain points people are experiencing and the solutions you can propose.
There are a number of different analyses you can conduct in order to gain a better understanding of what’s going on. Whether it’s to identify threats and opportunities or a performance analysis, carrying them out can equip you with the knowledge you need to better your business and offer answers to the questions your consumers have.
After you’ve conducted your industry analysis, go over your findings. Identify meaningful solutions to the problems that your industry and your target audience face. By zeroing in on these solutions, you have the foundations of different blogs (or podcasts/videos) that can address these problems.
Ask yourself: What’s the status quo in your industry? Do you think it’s right or wrong? And what makes it so? By getting a good grasp of the industry, you can better form a strong, well-informed opinion that can potentially position you as a thought leader.
2. Conduct a workshop to thrash out your ideas
Workshops are often overlooked because people don’t see the necessity (it’s just another meeting, right?) and believe their thoughts don’t always have to be polished or bounced off other people. But this process is more important than you think.
By refurbishing your ideas with someone who specialises in content, you’ll have a better understanding of your own thoughts and you’ll be guided on how to sharpen them. Content creation specialists generate ideas, can gauge if it works better in blog or video or podcast form, and can best optimise your ideas for search engine algorithms. They know what kind of content works, if it’s relevant, and how to help it rank higher.
Business owners can benefit a lot from workshops because of the feedback you receive and the other perspectives you get to hear. While you’re offering your own, another person’s point of view may shape yours to become more targeted and clear.
3. Find the research that proves what you want to say
The most tedious part: Research. Conducting any sort of investigation into the validity of your own claims can be painstaking—but it’s worth it. Finding facts, figures, and data that back up what you’re thinking can feel validating like you’re on the right track. And it’s especially important to your audience (and search engines).
Providing valuable information might not mean anything to your readers if there’s nothing that will prove what you’re saying is trustworthy and based on fact. Conducting analyses, surveys, and finding sources that support your statements will only strengthen your message and paint you as an authority figure. If you use trusted sources and experts to your advantage, you can be more credible.
4. Commit to a thought leadership topic posting schedule
Building credibility with your ideas is just one part of becoming a thought leader. It’s also being consistent. No modern-day thought leader stopped at one piece of content alone, they built themselves up by releasing a lot of good, consistent pieces that showcase how closely they understand their niche.
By sticking to a topic posting schedule several weeks (or even months) in advance, things are more organised, they will run more smoothly, and it allows you more time to brainstorm because you’re not scrambling for ideas. Having them lined up can also give you a look into what you’re talking about week to week and what other topics you can discuss that can further your image as a thought leader.
5. Keep telling powerful stories
Joan Didion, bestselling nonfiction writer, famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And not just to stay relevant in your industry, but because you love what you do and you’re passionate about it. By continuing to tell your story and shaping conversations through them, you are showing how innovative your ideas are and how they can build a following.
A compelling story will capture the attention of audiences and make you easier to connect with. If you feel a connection with someone, you’re more likely to trust in them and what they say. If you continue to tell good stories, more people will listen, establish a link to you, and want to follow your narrative even further.
Stories are inherently emotional and people respond better to their emotions than to empty statistics. Thought leaders know how to capture and inspire, and there’s no better medium to do that than a story. People tend to remember stories more than just data because they can get attached to a narrative much easier than numbers.
Thought leadership is often difficult to grasp because it can be new to a lot of people. But by sharing your ideas through relevant, thought-provoking stories, it becomes much easier to follow.
Being dubbed a thought leader is something that comes after communicating your ideas clearly and to an audience that acknowledges you as an expert. They give you the title, it’s not something you claim for yourself. The way to achieve this title is by creating unique, high-quality, and educated content that holds its own.