Strive to be a thought leader

Careers  Leadership
16 July, 2018

A seven-step process to go from leadership to thought leadership

In my conversations with various leaders, I’ve noticed a recurring theme. Despite their impressive track record and professional success, many leaders have a deep desire to do more – to stand out, to wield greater influence in solving the big problems of our time, and to build a lasting legacy.

At Godrej, we are also increasingly expecting our senior leaders to go beyond the call of duty, build stronger personal brands and develop expertise that is sought after and recognised both across the Group and externally.

Do these aspirations strike a chord with you? If so, the next logical step for you could be thought leadership. I recently read an excellent book on this topic, written by Denise Brosseau, CEO of the Thought Leadership Lab and lecturer at Stanford Business School. In Ready to Be a Thought Leader? How to Increase Your Influence, Impact, and Success, Brosseau clarifies what it means to be a thought leader:

Do you want to become someone who can move and inspire others with your innovative ideas, turn those ideas into reality, and then create a dedicated group of friends, fans, and followers to help you replicate and scale those ideas into sustainable change? This is the work of a thought leader.

Some thought leaders start an initiative, program, company, or movement. Others convene or lead an advisory committee, task force, or industry professional association…. Regardless of the form of their engagement, they do not simply pontificate on what needs to be done; they actively engage in bringing to life new, first-of-their-kind projects, programs, and creative initiatives. It is those actions that influence and inspire others to get on board.

So, this week, my message focuses on the journey from leadership to thought leadership, as well as the traits of successful thought leaders. I want to share a few key takeaways from Brosseau’s book – I hope you find them as helpful as I have. If you’re inspired to pursue thought leadership more seriously, I highly recommend getting a copy of the book – with a detailed roadmap and lots of illustrative examples, you’ll find it an invaluable guide.

Becoming a thought leader takes years of work, not weeks or months. But if the mission resonates with you, it’s definitely worth the investment, offering benefits such as:

  • Increased personal credibility and reputation
  • Strategic visibility for you and your organisation
  • Exposure for your ideas – within and outside the organisation
  • Access to people who make things happen
  • Opportunities to raise your profile to the national (or even international) level
  • Influence and authority to drive real change
  • Purpose, meaning and fulfilment
  • A legacy of positive change

In her book, Brosseau describes a seven-step process to make the transition from leader to thought leader:

1. Identify a niche

To maximise your impact and influence, you’ll need to narrow your focus. The first step is to identify a niche – something you genuinely care about and excel at. Brosseau recommends creating a Venn diagram with:

(a) your credentials – education, jobs, certificates

(b) your expertise – skills, talents, knowledge, experiences

(c) what you’re committed to – your passion, what you stand for, what you’d spend your time on even if you weren’t being paid, a problem you approach differently from most people

Edit the (c) list down to your top 1-2 items. Then, identify items from (a) and (b) that tie in with and support these priorities. At the point where all three circles overlap lies your ideal thought leadership domain.

Remember, even if you’re really good at your niche, there may be gaps in your knowledge. Don’t worry – you don’t need to be an expert on each and every aspect before you begin. The gaps can be filled along the way with additional qualifications or contributions from allies.

Next, visualise the change you want to bring about. Think big, and check whether your vision aligns with any emerging trends on which you can piggyback. If your point of view goes against the trend, that’s okay too. As Brosseau explains, being the lone dissident voice can help you stand out from the crowd.

2. Build your ripples of influence 

To drive meaningful change, you must kick-start ever-expanding circles of impact. It’s crucial for aspiring thought leaders to understand that solutions aren’t created in isolation. Share your vision with as many as people as possible – these discussions will reveal various possible paths to the future you want. Use these inputs to build on your initial kernel of an idea. Get out of your comfort zone: consider fresh possibilities and new ways of thinking about the problem.

Interact closely with stakeholders who are invested in your success and can validate, modify, and challenge your ideas – leaders within the company, colleagues in other departments who share your responsibilities, mentors within the industry, policymakers/community leaders who have similar goals, etc.

You should also seek out naysayers as early as possible, so you can make changes if needed and get comfortable with the kind of objections you’ll face later.

3. Activate your advocates

To broaden your impact, you’re going to need allies and champions for your efforts. As you find and engage these people, focus on them. Why should they get involved? How can you make it not just your idea, but also theirs?Brosseau suggests emphasising the following aspects: doing something for the greater good, your shared point of view, increased credibility and reputation, access to new innovation, greater media attention, and better business outcomes.

To find potential allies, look at leaders who face similar challenges or share your job title (across departments and within the industry), as well as community leaders, industry spokespeople, researchers, and foundations who care about the issue.

4. Overcome internal obstacles

Before stepping into the spotlight, you might have to overcome some internal obstacles. All thought leaders have to face down their personal fears – fear of failure, being judged, being vulnerable, letting people down…. Brosseau suggests writing down your top ten reasons for wanting to be a thought leader and placing the list at your bedside. Read it every morning and night to remind yourself why you are doing this.

It’s also important to build your personal reserves of resilience, because you will encounter people trying to actively dissuade or even sabotage you along the way. Differentiate between malicious criticism and constructive feedback – ignore the former, and treat the latter as integral to your learning progress. Celebrate small victories to keep yourself going.

5. Create a blueprint of your methodology

To truly drive change and scale impact, you need to create a blueprint of your methodology, giving supporters a clear way forward. As Brosseau explains:

You need to document what you know into a system, methodology, process, protocol, or set of guiding principles so others can easily understand, get on board, and help you replicate your ideas.

Many leaders (wrongly) assume that they have nothing special or unique to offer. If you’re naturally humble and have been working in your field for a long time, it can be easy to forget how valuable your insight and perspective are for other people. Start building your repository of share-worthy material with a “wisdom journal”, noting down failures, successes, lessons, and key principles on a day-to-day basis.

Your lessons should be memorable and anchored in personal experience, yet universally relevant. Develop visuals to strengthen your message, come up with a great name for your framework/approach, and offer proof that it works through success cases.


A far-reaching network of friends, allies, and followers will amplify your message. For this, Brosseau recommends the SHOUT process:

Select your audience and venue. Study other people’s successes to see what works and what doesn’t. Options include PR, blogging, public speaking, presentations, social media, etc. Test the waters with smaller venues first.

Hone your message. Learn to craft and deliver a compelling story. Develop empathetic stories that help the audience engage with your ideas and get motivated, personal stories that allow them to connect with you, and testimonial-style stories from people who have enjoyed success using your methodology.

Overcome resistance. With an already-packed schedule, you may think, “Where will I find the time to do all this?” To begin with, Brosseau suggests spending just 20 minutes a day on getting your ideas out there. Try to move past any personal resistance to getting online. You don’t have to be on every platform – but to be accessible, you’ll need to be present in at least a few online spaces.

Understand potential pitfalls. During your thought leadership journey, adhere to some key principles – including transparency, accuracy, and thoroughness. Verify your sources, be an “honest broker”, and give credit when using someone else’s ideas. Anything less can backfire badly.

Transform individuals into a community.Brosseau explains that you must show people how to get involved and create platforms for interaction. Also, allow them to contribute – people value things far more when they have a hand in them. Move from lecture mode to conversation mode as quickly as possible.

7. Audit your impact

This final step is about accelerating the process through which people learn, implement, and further spread your ideas. To check whether your message is resonating, audit your impact: track your activities, analyse engagement, and measure growth/replication.

To achieve scale, you need to empower others to implement your ideas in their own companies/communities. Come up with engaging action plans and micro-goals. The steps you offer must be clear and – above all – realistic. When followers experience initial success, they’ll be motivated to follow through on the rest of your plan as well. If possible, bring the community together for connection and learning: think local events, national-level retreats, or even online gathering spaces.

As you work towards becoming a thought leader, keep in mind four key behaviours of successful thought leaders, outlined by Brosseau:

1. They expand ideas

Thought leaders are relentlessly curious. They explore new possibilities, look for innovative practices in other industries/regions that can be applied to their own niche, and engage with the broader ecosystem to grow their ideas.

Try the following:

  • Subscribe to a trends-focused newsletter
  • Attend events – inside and outside your industry
  • Read blogs/articles written by other leaders
  • Form a thought circle with people who share your designation, responsibilities, or domain of expertise

2. They tell stories

How can you shape your message to broaden its understanding and reach? Simplify complex information to make it more digestible, and use metaphors that catch people’s attention and help them understand key concepts of the issue you care about.

To enhance your skills, you could:

  • Take a storytelling workshop, or read articles and books on the topic
  • Start gathering metaphors and anecdotes that can make your message compelling
  • Ask family/friends to read your articles/blogs – can they easily understand the message?

3. They build lasting relationships 

Thought leaders make it a priority to connect with their supporters. Build trust and goodwill by showing up consistently and being generous about sharing knowledge. To scale your impact, create simple, easy-to-share messages that can pass from one person to the next.

A few other suggestions:

  • Set up a mailing list to keep people informed
  • Create an online community
  • Follow and try to get in touch with top thought leaders in your identified niche
  • Create ways for people to engage with your message – set up an event, share a video, encourage pooling of resources, etc.

4. They’re approachable and open

Successful thought leaders don’t put themselves on a pedestal or reserve their smiles just for VIPs; they’re friendly and accessible to everyone who’s interested in their message. They’re also transparent about themselves – insofar as it connects with and deepens their message. Finally, they’re willing to ask for support. You’ll need all the help you can get as thought leadership is a years-long journey.

Consider the following recommendations from Brosseau:

  • Create downloadable, shareable materials – white papers, slideshows, video presentations
  • Get support – a mentor, a coach, or a colleague. Who can keep you going and support you in moments of doubt?
  • Think about how your personal story ties in with your mission, and how you can share these links

If you’re still on the fence about thought leadership, consider this moving call to action from Brosseau:

Whatever issue you are tackling, whatever problem you are working to solve, whatever arena you choose to educate and inspire and engage others in — it needs your voice. To stay on the side lines or keep silent or not value your own participation will mean not only that you will lose the opportunity to make a difference but that the rest of us will lose too. We will lose your passion, your commitment, and your dedication to making a difference.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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