Who is a thought leader?

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Are you a thought leader?

Can you even define what a thought leader is, and what conditions cause someone to consider you to be a thought leader?

For the marketing, communications, and public relations world, understanding what defines a thought leader is an obvious and logical prerequisite to helping one of your company’s subject matter experts or executives become a thought leader. The problem is, no one can agree on what thought leadership actually means, much less how to become one. There are so many definitions which conflict that it’s difficult to ascertain who should be a thought leader.

I’d like to propose a simple definition: the ideal of the thought leader is someone whose thinking guides the decisions you and your company make. They publish a thought-provoking article or talk about a topic in a way that makes you think differently about how you’re doing things. Perhaps their ideas make you change how you do business.

Their thoughts change how you lead.

Thus, someone who is an exceptional executor, an exceptional do-er, may not necessarily be a thought leader. Consider the difference between a chef who can reliably cook exceptional meals from existing recipes and a chef who can create new, never-before made recipes. The former may be a leader, may be a peerless performer, and certainly is someone whose restaurant you’d want to frequent if you wanted a favorite dish cooked just the way you remember it. The latter chef has the restaurant you go to when you’re just not excited about the same-old meals. You want something new, something different, hopefully something better. That’s the difference between a leader and a thought leader. Both are needed. Both are essential.

One of the tasks we’re often assigned in the world of public relations is to create a thought leadership campaign. The best thought leadership campaigns are ones in which you’re not “trying to be a thought leader”. If we accept that thought leaders are people whose thoughts change the way we lead, then the people who are true thought leaders are ones always coming up with new things for us to try, in the same way that the best chefs are always coming up with new dishes for us to try. If you want to be considered a thought leader, then you need to distribute new and different ideas all the time, over a sustained period of time, so that people gradually come to see what else you’ve got to teach them. When we’re working on creating a thought leadership campaign, we need to identify who the creator of ideas is in your company – and it may not be the best executor of those ideas.

Think about where you currently go as a leader for new ideas. Social media. Blogs. Email newsletters. Conferences. Those are the vehicles, the methods by which you’ll prove your thought leadership on a regular basis, by always having something new to share, by always having “new dishes” for other leaders to try in their organizations.

Ultimately, you must create new things, be constantly testing and experimenting, developing and designing, so that your recipe book of leadership secrets continues to grow and you have more to share. Some thought leaders’ reputations wane over time because they have something that’s innovative but then becomes commonplace; they’re no longer considered thought leaders because everyone knows their recipes, even if they are still effective executors of their ideas. To remain a thought leader, you must always have something new to teach.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology

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Posted on April 7, 2014 in Advertising, Marketing, Public Relations

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About the Author

Christopher S. Penn is an authority on digital marketing and marketing technology. A recognized thought leader, author, and speaker, he has shaped three key fields in the marketing industry: Google Analytics adoption, data-driven marketing and PR, and email marketing. Known for his high-octane, here’s how to get it done approach, his expertise benefits companies such as Citrix Systems, McDonald’s, GoDaddy, McKesson, and many others. His latest work, Leading Innovation, teaches organizations how to implement and scale innovative practices to direct change. Christopher is a highly-sought keynote speaker thanks to his energetic, informative talks. In 2015, he delivered insightful, innovative talks on all aspects of marketing and analytics at over 30 events to critical acclaim. He is a founding member of IBM’s Watson Analytics Predictioneers, co-founder of the groundbreaking PodCamp Conference, and co-host of the Marketing Over Coffee marketing podcast. Christopher is a Google Analytics Certified Professional and a Google AdWords Certified Professional. He is the author of over two dozen marketing books including bestsellers such as Marketing White Belt: Basics for the Digital Marketer, Marketing Red Belt: Connecting With Your Creative Mind, and Marketing Blue Belt: From Data Zero to Marketing Hero.
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