What Makes a True Thought Leader (Think You Have It?)

What Makes a True Thought Leader (Think You Have It?)

Thought leadership: Quite possibly the most overused word in modern day marketing. There’s something about it that feels a lot like nails on a chalkboard to me. ‘Thought leadership’ to content marketing is what ‘fundamental shift’ was to social media in the early 2010’s... a big word, laden with promise, but exaggerated and superfluous at its core.

It seems like today, everyone who runs a blog, WordPress site or Tumblr fancies themselves a thought leader. (Come to think of it, the other comparison that immediately comes to mind is when everyone was a ‘social media guru’ back in the day because they were an early adopter of Twitter.)

Do I sound a little jaded? (You can say it. I do.) Here’s why: in my role, I interface with true thought leaders every day. People -- changemakers -- who have dedicated themselves to their work and earned the status of thought leader. Yet I also get countless requests from people who want to know if Onboardly can ‘make them a thought leader’... by next week.

If there was a magical answer, believe me, I’d set up an auto-responder and invite you to subscribe. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy -- and becoming a thought leader takes work.

Iconic thought leaders like Steve Jobs (on design), Richard Branson (on leadership) and Seth Godin (on marketing) set a high bar through years of consistent effort and challenging the status quo. Not surprisingly, today’s generation wants the same accolades, only overnight.

Hear me out: I truly believe this world needs more thought leaders; more game changers. If you’re one of those people, welcome. Just know that it cannot happen in the blink of an eye -- and if you hope it will, this article isn’t the place to be. Now, if we’re on the same page, let’s get started.

Bad news, first

In case you haven’t gathered it by now, if you really want to be a thought leader, there’s a lot more to it than acting the part. You see, “fake it till you make it” doesn’t really apply with ideas. And while R&D (rob and duplicate) has long been applauded as an appropriate technique for moving the needle forward in business, thought leadership is a different beast: it’s a long-term strategy.

And it’s a long-term strategy with a lot of ups-and-downs. Before you get any further in your quest to become the next great intellectual heavyweight, here are a few things to keep in mind:

People are going to disagree with you. A lot.

Thought leaders may draw inspiration from the ideas of others but they push themselves to take them several steps further, or better yet - to see the opposing point of view. In fact, articulating a new or less popular way of thinking is something that thought leaders do best. They defy convention and look for other, less obvious ways.

“If you are not constantly frustrated by the lack of understanding around your ideas or in the pushback on your ideas, then you're not a thought leader.” - Lincoln Murphy, Sixteen Ventures

Accept that as a thought leader, you aren’t going to please everyone all of the time. But those who do get you - your ‘tribe’ of like-minded thinkers - they’ll appreciate your energy.

You can’t sell anything but ideas.

An extremely popular misconception is that thought leadership will help increase sales, and will help you get new customers. It won’t -- at least not directly. You can’t subtly slide a ‘sales pitch’ into your content. Don’t even attempt it. Your intentions will be glaringly obvious from the get-go.

What does help with customer acquisition is building rapport with your audience -- allowing them to connect with you on a human level by giving away your best stuff (your thoughts, of course). Be truly helpful to your audience and shine a light on solutions to problems they may be experiencing.

“Thought leadership isn't about showing off; it's about giving helpful and actionable insights.” - Heather Morgan, SalesFolk.com

Trust in the process and know that eventually, if you provide enough value to your community, they will eventually turn to you or your company for professional advice. Better yet, they could potentially become the best advocate for your products or services.

Thought leadership requires an incredible investment in time and energy, and you can guarantee you won’t see an immediate return.

It’s going to take years. Remember: we’re talking long-term strategy here.

In it for the long haul, future thought leader? Good. The world needs more people like you.

What Makes a True Thought Leader

Thought leadership is more than just writing a book; giving one talk; hitting a milestone in Twitter followers.

Thought leaders aren’t born, they’re made. Establishing thought leadership takes time and experience, research, trial and error, mistakes made and lessons learned. Thought leaders are made through the acknowledgment that there’s extreme value in what they don’t know. They’re made from a hunger to find out what that is, educate themselves, then translate it to the audience they’re serving.

Thought leadership takes dedication -- and a certain set of characteristics that sets a thought leader apart:

They believe in something bigger than themselves

The best thought leaders are passionate about their subject matter expertise, see something wrong with the world and commit to solving it. They know their ‘raison d’etre’ - and it’s more than making money.

The belief in something bigger is what gets a thought leader past the hurdles of disagreement with and doubt in their work. It makes them okay with not seeing immediate returns, and with potentially pissing some people off. And it pushes them to keep going -- keep learning, keep challenging -- when they’re just plain tired.

Being a thought leader has nothing to do with ego - it’s about being truly helpful. Ask yourself: what do I want to solve for?

They inspire

Thought leaders remind people that the best ideas haven’t necessarily already been articulated yet. They understand that ideas evolve, and serve as inspiration to others to find their own original thoughts. Furthermore, they inspire those people to take their own passion and turn it into something that may be used to inspire others.

“A thought leader is someone that can give original, helpful insight on a topic. In a crowded space, it's someone with a fresh twist or new take on a well-covered topic.” - Ashli Norton, Autosend.io

They tell stories

Thought leaders understand that the way to challenge and inspire isn’t through a hard sales pitch or a strong call to action. They recognize the importance of messaging through storytelling, and aim to make the stories they tell stronger for the purpose of connecting with the people and ideas they’re serving.

We love this advice from a friend on the importance of great storytelling:

“People should be intrigued and entertained by your story, not bored. After hearing or reading your stuff, people should be motivated to tell others without any prompting or payback.” - Dave McClure, 500Startups

No ego. No sales pitch. Just a good story, shared over time through different media.

Thought Leadership as a Growth Strategy

There’s a reason LinkedIn named its content contributors Influencers. Thought leadership is gained through an effective use of content strategy to spread your ideas -- so if you’re harboring a genuine passion for creating content: video, text, audio, you name it -- then you might just enjoy this long and winding road to thought leadership.

Creating content for thought leadership is challenging at best, but it’s simply the most effective strategy in your personal and professional growth as an expert, and in staying ahead of competitors. Here’s what I mean:

Sharing your knowledge builds credibility.

Think about the most sought-after speakers you’ve seen at conferences. Everyone from Gary Vaynerchuk to John C. Maxwell to Brian Solis -- and the list goes on. I can assure you they didn’t start out as keynote speakers. They started by publicly sharing their knowledge and opinions with others as often as they possibly could. The best part is this: even as established thought leaders, they continue to do the work and give their knowledge away every day.

“There is no substitute for honest hard work. You have to earn the privilege of building a “personal brand”, and the only way to do that is to actually execute.” - Gary Vaynerchuk, VaynerMedia

Sharing knowledge -- consistently executing via content -- builds credibility. And credibility builds an audience.

Thought leadership reduces the need for a hard sell.

Once you’ve got a loyal audience (for the record: this can be 10 people or 10,000), your chances of them advocating for you go up. This FastCompany article on thought leadership articulates this idea well:

“Create your thought leadership with an eye toward accrual of brand value, not revenue. The dividends may be intangible, but when thought leadership flips from push to pull (writers are seeking out your opinion, conferences are inviting you to present), then you will know that you have a thought leadership hit.”

Keep the concept of push to pull in mind as you embark on the challenge of becoming a thought leader. Don’t go into this looking for an immediate revenue stream - but do keep your eye on the big picture from a growth perspective and be mindful of that push-to-pull moment. When it comes, you’ll want to be ready to turn the audience into potential customers.

Thought leadership enhances the experience of your clients.

I don’t know about you, but I like to work with really smart people. I believe in hiring the smartest and most driven people, choosing the best service providers, and partnering with world-class companies. If you’re like me (and I bet you are), you’ll understand that your clients probably feel that way too.

When you can show your clients that you’re more than just a product or service provider - that you’re a thought leader in your industry - they’ll learn to appreciate your value that much more.

People buy from those they know, like and trust. Thought leadership helps build up those traits and will set you apart from the rest of the pack. We’re all out to enhance the client experience after all, aren’t we?

We know what thought leaders are. We know what they aren’t. And we know the benefits of being a thought leader in your industry. What’s left? Oh, yes. The work to get you there.

10 Actionable Steps To Becoming a Thought Leader

At Onboardly, we’ve spent years refining our process of helping brilliant leaders at startups figure out how to crack the thought leadership nut. Here’s a glimpse into the 10 crucial steps we’ve identified to getting started:

1. Evaluate your goals.

You can’t get where you need to go without an idea of what that destination is. With every marketing activity (including personal branding and thought leadership), goal setting is key. Stay focused, set reasonable goals, and keep at it.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, remember this: we’re in it for the long haul. Your goals in establishing thought leadership should support a long-term vision, and each step along the way should get you closer to that vision, no matter how big or small.

2. Take time to understand your why.

There’s a reason Simon Sinek inspires so many posts about ‘finding your why’ (my co-founder Renee does a great job of articulating it’s importance here): because it’s so. absolutely. critical.

Your goal of becoming a thought leader connects your ideas to the long-term vision of the company. Your ‘why’, on the other hand, connects your purpose to the people you’re serving. Your ‘why’ is what’s going to keep you moving forward despite the adversity, doubt, and incredible amount of work.

3. Establish your niche.

We can’t be all things to all people, but we can be an awful lot to the right people. If you’re aspiring to be a thought leader, remember that you’ll have to write (or vlog, podcast, etc) on your topic; your niche for theoretically every day, week and year of the foreseeable future. All that to say -- it’s not something to choose lightly.

Consider your knowledge base and identify where the gaps are in your industry -- it should relate to your core values, your expertise, and what your customers need. Carefully select and continue to research your niche regularly to maximize your knowledge in the area.

4. Identify collaborators and like-minded individuals.

Consider who else is committed to the space and find ways to collaborate, especially with those who have more established reach than you do. As you’re getting started, this may benefit you more than them, so you’ll want to be mindful of their time. Don’t be bashful -- but understand that you may potentially want to take on a larger share of the workload to see the collaboration through to fruition.

Forget competition here. Build a list of potential collaborators and gradually get to know them before going in for the ask. Network before you need it.

5. Find your voice.

What’s going to make your content you? Your ideas, of course -- but also the voice in which you share them.

  • Are you witty? sarcastic? academic?
  • Do you better produce long-form content or popcorn posts?
  • What medium do you prefer? Does text float your boat? Podcasts? Video?

Take the time to find out what feels right for you -- keeping a consistent and relatable voice will go a long way in helping your readers/viewers/listeners connect with you and know what to expect.

6. Go big, or go home.

AKA: do the work. Consider how your thought leadership can influence every piece of content you create, from blog posts to social media updates to videos to podcasts to speaking engagements and more. Every medium; every outlet becomes your platform -- even that email signature or that out-of-office message.

Your message, in your voice, needs to come across loud and clear. Re-evaluate all past content and make sure your message is at its core.

7. Commit to a sustainable plan.

It’s usually not creating the content ideas that’s a challenge, but rather it’s designing a sustainable plan to keep great content coming. Set yourself up for success by mapping out a plan that’s manageable for the time you’re able to commit to -- and stick to it.

To make the process even more manageable, consider leaning on freelance resources to assist with detail-oriented tasks like editing or the more tedious chore of uploading content to your CMS or pre-populating/scheduling tweets or other social media uploads.

By creating (and sticking to) a sustainable plan, you’ll avoid going gangbusters out of the gate followed by radio silence when other tasks that generate a more immediate return get in the way. Please know this: as you gradually gain authority with your audience, you also build a responsibility to continue to deliver the good stuff on the regular.

8. Infiltrate the environment.

Be everywhere. Once you’ve infused your message into all of your content, spread it across multiple platforms.

Dan Martell does this extremely well. His newsletter is extremely popular, but he also extracts some of the key takeaways from his posts and converts to video. Then, he and even takes it a step further by distilling some of the best stuff into beautiful Instagram quotes.

My point here is that for every great piece of content, there’s an opportunity to repurpose it across multiple channels. (Create once and share thrice -- or more!)

The best part: you’re not limited to your own platforms: guest post on others’ blogs, offer interviews for others’ podcasts or vlogs, join forums where you can provide help like Quora -- you get the idea.

9. Practice, practice, practice.

As I’ve said before, thought leaders aren’t born, they’re made. Take the time to hone your craft. The people at the top didn’t get there by faking it till they made it -- they committed to doing hard work, every day. (Seth Godin has written tens of thousands of blog posts. Seriously.)

Make creating part of your everyday routine. Whether it’s 15 minutes with a notebook every morning over coffee or a half day in the recording studio a week -- commit to a regular schedule. Like with anything that requires dedication, practice makes perfect.

10. Always be learning.

Don’t put the blinders on. Keep learning and continuously improve your knowledge about both global trends and your niche in particular.

As Justine Musk famously remarked, if writing is the exhale, reading is the inhale. Consume as much as you can, but be mindful to always look for the alternate theory or a different way of thinking. Draw inspiration from others, but remember that as a thought leader, it’s your responsibility to forgo a “me-too” attitude in favor of bringing a new perspective to the discussion as well.

Rome wasn’t built in a day…

And thought leadership can’t be, either.

True thought leaders dedicate themselves to doing work that won’t please everyone. Work that would (and should) inspire some doubts. But, it’s work that fulfilled their ‘why’ and served their audience day-in, and day-out. And once they achieved that coveted thought leader status? They kept on working.

[Photo credit: Kevin Jaako]

What do you think?


Great & timely post. Some real truths here.

Thanks Hannah – did you have a favorite takeaway? Always great to see what sticks out. /H

Best thought leadership post. Ever.

Love this, needed this, inspired by it. It’s like 3 posts in one, all super-actionable and super-necessary. Excellent stuff.

Hey Matt –

This just made my morning. So glad you found it actionable and inspiring. 🙂


Thank you for a great article on thought leadership Heather. So tired of “experts” and posts telling us R&D is the way to quick fortune and fame!!! I mean, really, wouldn’t you expect a thought leader to think?


Thanks so much for your kind words. The reality is that it’s far from easy — but definitely attainable if you’re committed.

Thanks Vera. 🙂

This couldn’t have been more timely for me. Thanks for the message and the inspiration.

So happy that it was timely for you today, Skip.

Anything stand out in particular?

I think I learned some very valuable information personally and professionally. #aworkout

Thanks Darlene! So thrilled you got value on both sides. 🙂