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Don't Tell Me You're a Thought-Leader: Just Be One

thought leaders and narcissism

More often than I can stomach, I see people describe themselves as a “thought leader.” I think they’ve seen the term lobbed around so much in this era of personal branding via our almighty digital media, they think it’s meaningful—even if it’s self-proclaimed. It’s not.

It’s likely they think it makes them sound wise. It doesn’t.

They might think it’ll impress me—or you—or somebody. It won’t.

Actually, it makes an appalling impression on me. I think someone who anoints themselves a “thought leader” reeks of self-importance. I find it arrogant. Dare I say, it even sounds stupid.

Consider these comparisons. You’re filthy rich. Would you introduce yourself as a billionaire? Charming. How about you’re Heidi Klum gorgeous? Would you greet me with “Hello, I’m a sex symbol.” Sounds kind of unattractive.

When I stumble into a self-anointed thought leader, I unfollow them. Immediate grounds for unlike, uncircle, unsubscribe. I might even unpin ‘em if their pins weren’t so damn thoughtful.

Maybe you don’t buy my point of view. Feel free to disagree.

Pursuing thought leadership is fine.

I don’t want you to take my rant all wrong. In my opinion, aiming to be a thought leader might be noble. In this media noisefest we’ve come to call social media, it’s downright important to establish authority in your field, build a tribe, and lead it. This is an undeniably effective marketing strategy.

Go for it. Think. Lead. Publish. Share. Advise. Influence. Hell, throw thought leader parties if you want. But don’t tell me you’re a thought leader. Just be one.

A fine publication by Kuno Creative, who many deem thought leaders in inbound marketing, uncovers a series of helpful tactics. The eBook defines thought leadership, explains its value, prepares you for the journey, and offers a 7-step plan, summarized like so:

  1. Develop your personal brand and voice
  2. Create and maintain a blog
  3. Produce a variety of interesting and engaging advanced content
  4. Establish yourself on social media
  5. Answer reporter queries and other questions
  6. Write guest articles and blogs
  7. Speak at conferences and events 

Awesome advice. I’m trying as hard as I possibly can to follow the formula. Yes sir, I want to be a thought leader. I encourage you to do the same.

What do you think about thought leadership?

I wrote an article on my blog, “7 Things Thought Leaders Don’t Think,”which excited a good many readers. Then I wrote a teaser link to it in our Social Media Today LinkedIn Group. “Do you think you’re becoming a thought leader?” Whoa. It fueled a fiery discussion thread. It's a fun read (and a good reason to join the SMT group on LinkedIn.)

Apparently, y’all have some thoughts on thought leadership. Here’s what I think.

There is no formula for thought leadership.

Me, I’m a thought reader. I’m a thought needer. Given my propensity for presenting my opinion and stirring the pot, I think it’d be fair to say I’m even a thought feeder.

But I’m not a thought leader. And neither are you.

Despite what you may have been told by leading thinkers who so generously offer convenient instruction manuals for becoming a thought leader, no formula produces one.

Though there are a variety of ingredients thought leaders share, but there’s no recipe. There’s no thought leadership department at Walmart and no webinar, conference, eBook, podcast, infographic, pin board, or blog with the magic power to convert you into a thought leader.

But before you issue a hit on me, let me tell you, I think the world of thought leaders. You should aspire to become an authority in your field. You should share your ideas by publishing useful content online. It’s a powerful strategy for building your brand.

However, when you wander into the land of self-proclaimed thought leadership your credibility dies a sudden (and deserved) death. Thought leaders don’t call themselves thought leaders. They don’t think that way.

What else don’t thought leaders think?

I’ve created a list.

1.    Twitter is the road to Thought Leadership City.

Twitter is awesome. It’s my favorite platform for exchanging ideas, making new connections, and building relationships. I credit social media at large for profoundly changing our lives in so many ways. It has given experts of every type a means to amplify their messages and accelerate their teaching, so its implications for marketing are enormous.

Perhaps it’s fair to say social media paves the way for many new opportunities, but it doesn’t take you to a place called “Thought Leadership.” It gives you a great microphone, so it definitely can allow you to be heard by a bigger audience and potentially command even greater influence. But it doesn’t give you the revolutionary ideas that earn you the title “thought leader.”

2.    Authoring a book makes thought leadership automatic.

It’s never been easy to write a book and it never will be. But it’s true; it has become immensely easier to publish a book—or anything. Hurdles that might have formerly blocked the path to publishing have been removed. So we have more books now. I’m not sure we have more great books though.

Essentially, we’ve segued over to content marketing with this one. The content doesn’t have to be a book. However, just as social media itself doesn’t make you brilliant, a publication with your name on it doesn’t either.

3.    Calling myself a thought leader makes me a thought leader.

This is so untrue, it inspired this article. I’d like to call myself a professional tennis player, but I’m a mediocre club-level player. Want lessons?

4.    All those convenient shortcuts to thought leadership are so useful.

I can’t imagine graduating from a course with a degree in thought leadership. I hope you can’t either. It strikes me as laughable that a seminar, eBook, video, or any teaching tool can transform you or anyone into a thought leader. An article titled, “Write a Thought-Leadership Corporate Blog in Just 5 Minutes a Week” inspired me to add this “shortcut” idea to my list (as well as add a few thoughts to the article’s commentary stream).

5.    Evangelism makes me a thought leader.

If you have strong convictions about a topic and believe your word will help others, by all means, be an evangelist. I’m doing my part by speaking on and writing about content marketing here, there and everywhere. It doesn’t make me a thought leader though. It makes me an evangelist.

6.    Joining a thought leadership group makes me a thought leader.

Get real. I’m sure you’ll find thought leader groups on LinkedIn and no doubt there are MeetUps and clubs featuring “Thought Leader” in their names. Chances are pretty good, getting involved in these will have you rubbing elbows with some strong thinkers and inspire some great ideas.

I’ve been attending a MeetUp about business speaking (and joined some LinkedIn groups focusing on the topic). I find myself surrounded by experienced speakers, gathering helpful ideas for speaking, and I now take advantage of opportunities to speak. So I’m a speaker now. However, joining these groups didn’t make me a speaker. I made myself one.

Thank goodness for thought leaders.

Truth be told, I value the thought leaders of the world as much as you or anybody. But thought leadership just isn’t a moniker you toss on your resume.

Thought leaders are the men and women with ideas with the power to change the world. Their vision causes us to recalibrate ours. Their conviction stomps on the status quo and grinds it into the ground. Their passion for progress renders fear completely useless. They don’t subscribe to formulas nor do they attempt to create them.

Steve Jobs was a thought leader. You might say he was an arrogant one. He offended people left and right and left a trail of suck-ups and pretenders in his wake. You couldn’t even offend him back. Steve was ruthless. He was relentless. And he revolutionized this world in meaningful ways.

However opinionated this article might be, my observations in the paragraph above are not opinions. They are incontrovertible facts. What you are doing right now is the result of the work of a thought leader in a black mock-tee who made a big badass dent in the world by giving us tools to help us be creative.

He’d infuriate his teammates. If you didn’t see things his way, he’d flip you two middle fingers. If you put Steve Jobs in thought leadership school, he’d fail every course. Thought leaders create their own course.

That’s what I think about thought leadership. What do you think?


Join The Conversation

  • Veronica Moore's picture
    Jul 29 Posted 3 years ago Veronica Moore

    I feel exactly the same way when I see "social media guru." I guess some people think if they keep calling themselves something, other people will believe them. I think there's nothing wrong with a little self-promotion but genuinely demonstrating your skills, knowledge, experience, etc. is the only lasting way to become a leader of anything. 

  • Stephen Tamlin's picture
    Mar 27 Posted 4 years ago Stephen Tamlin

    I understand what you're sayin here Mark but Heidi Klum has been paid millions of dollars to be a model, and has been doing that for years. She can call herself a model. Someone who has been in marketing for a couple of years cannot call themselves a thought leader.

    If someone out there is going to pay you to be a 'Thought leader' fantastic, if they'll pay you more than once then you can start calling yourself that. Most people who are thought leaders have spent years becoming experts in their feilds and would never call themselves that, others do.

  • Stephen Tamlin's picture
    Mar 27 Posted 4 years ago Stephen Tamlin

    Really interesting article Barry.

    I feel the same way about a lot of what you say, within this industry we work in there are many out there that call themselves experts and evangelists and thought leaders, but you're right if you have to tell someone you're a though leader then it more often than not means that you aren't!

    I have many thought leaders on Twitter, of which a lot I’ve had great conversations with yet none of them call themselves though leaders.



  • FeldmanCreative's picture
    Mar 25 Posted 4 years ago FeldmanCreative


    Supermodel? Seriously? I doubt that. You think Oprah would call herself the ultimate humanitarian? Would Meryl describe herself as great actress? No chance.

  • FeldmanCreative's picture
    Mar 24 Posted 4 years ago FeldmanCreative

    Oh yeah? After I saw one or two Twitter profiles including the term, I did a search (Using Tweepz) and found 815 Twitter users calling themselves thought leaders. Oy, that's a whole lot of vanity.

  • Mark Mercer's picture
    Mar 24 Posted 4 years ago Mark Mercer

    To be fair, I'm pretty sure that Heidi Klum has supermodel somewhere on her portfolio. Self-promotion is necessary in marketing; always has been, "social" didn't change that. Networking "above one's station" also is a centuries-honored practice.

    Yes, people need to have some sense of reality, not jump way above what they can deliver. But you have to put yourself "out there". Create a new self-image / professional image. Get unstuck from your old stories to yourself of where you begin and end.

    So sure, call yourself a Thought Leader if, and only if, you believe you can make that visualization real. I don't call myself that. But I can see it from my house.

  • YourDigiGirl's picture
    Mar 24 Posted 4 years ago YourDigiGirl

    I. Love. It. 

    Now, I could've sworn that I saw a meeting room cordoned off at a conference center the other day...and the placard read "Thought Leaders Only"!  As if earning the title were similar to self-deputizing oneself when the sheriff's out of town. :)

    Greatly enjoyed the post --  you've earned this gal's respect for "going there" w/a potentially contentious topic.  Confession, though (whispering): I had no idea that people actually gave themselves the TL title!  How sheltered I've been.  And the list of what TL's DO and DO NOT do was excellent.  Thank you for taking the time to write it - it's a keeper. :)

    Christy - YourDigiGirl

    Former Thought Leader on various important issues...but I guess that party's over. ;)

  • Mar 24 Posted 4 years ago Dan Erickson

    Wow! I'd never even heard the term "thought leader" until now.  But in general we are often not what we claim to be, but are what we do.

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