Bad news: You're not a thought leader
Or a "guru," "expert," or "ninja" whatever
So, you say you're a thought leader.
Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, friend, but it’s entirely possible that you are not.
Let’s start with a definition, shall we?
one whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential.
Cool. Everyone wants to be a thought leader, right? A quick search for “thought leader” on LinkedIn confirms that.
Can you guess how many results that people query produced?
(Drum roll, please…)
A whopping 1,320,000 million! That’s a whole lotta thought leaders.
Look, we all have favorite business leaders we regularly follow for their expertise. We glean value from their insights and perspective and have come to know, like, and trust them from the knowledge they share. And because they do this regularly, we look to them as emotionally intelligent guideposts who strive to serve others by communicating the lessons they’ve learned in an engaging and compelling way.
Naturally, we want to emulate them. And hey, while we’re at it, let’s use the “thought leader” moniker, so people know that we’re among the most authoritative and influential in our field.
Here’s the harsh truth: if you have to tell someone you’re a thought leader (or guru/expert/ninja at anything)*, you’re probably not.
Those are titles bestowed upon you, not self-appointed.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t become a trusted resource and go-to person in your industry or area of expertise; it’s all in how you go about it.
What and how you share your wisdom matters. Here are the seven most common thought leadership sins to avoid to elevate your personal brand and thought leadership status:
1. You only share the wins
Nothing is a bigger turnoff than someone who is continuously boasting. People respond to those who are genuine and admit when they’ve made a mistake. Being vulnerable and sharing the ups and downs of your business life helps you better connect with others. Your insights show your audience how you’ll avoid repeating the same mistake, what you’ve learned in the process, or simply that you’re an imperfect human, just like them. Remember, aim for progress, not perfection.
2. You push your product or service
Despite what you see on social media, don’t make the mistake of using your platform for blatant self-promotion. Instead, provide value by serving, not selling. Focus on sharing real-world business experiences and leadership lessons learned. In doing so, you’ll broaden and strengthen your network without doing any “promotion” whatsoever.
3. You try to cover too much ground
You may have multiple interests, but you’ll confuse your audience when you comment on too many disparate things. In the thought leadership game, it’s best to stick to those few areas where you are expert and what you want to have others associate with you. This discipline allows you to go deeper and stay within your wheelhouse, which will help your audience see you as the go-to person in your arena.
4. You never get to the point
When sharing your insights, it can be tempting to include every detail and nuance, but you’ll lose your audience if you drone on. Meandering signals that you’re unorganized and unsure. Instead, let clarity and focus guide you, eliminate extraneous material, and keep to one brief, compelling message that’s easily absorbed and retained.
5. You share haphazardly or infrequently
Sharing your thoughts is great, but not if you only do it occasionally. For the most significant impact, get into the habit of regularly and consistently publishing your wisdom. As your network gets used to seeing your posts, they’ll come to look forward to—and trust—your insights and observations.
6. You post and ghost
Merely posting isn’t enough. Remember that in sharing your wisdom, the best possible outcomes are to start conversations and build relationships. Encourage both by engaging with those who choose to like, comment, and share your posts, and you’ll forge better connections.
7. You’re not telling a consistent career story
One of the happy byproducts of thought leadership is that people will want to learn more about you. In the professional world, this typically happens when they click back to your LinkedIn profile. If you haven’t updated it recently, or the career story it tells is incomplete or old, it will immediately send up a red flag. Take the time to create a cohesive, up-to-date, relevant, and engaging presence that aligns with your intended messaging and supports your positioning as a trusted thought leader. Because once you have your story, it changes everything, including how others perceive, pay, and promote you.
Here’s the ultimate challenge: Tell me you’re a thought leader without telling me you’re a thought leader.
In other words, show me.
Talk is cheap. You can’t just say you do something; you must demonstrate it through your consistent actions and behaviors.
And speaking of showing versus telling, do you remember playing the Show and Tell game in elementary school?
The idea behind the game was to boost confidence, help foster better communication skills, build relationships, and encourage collaboration and dialogue.
In my latest Forbes article, I share why the same principles of this beloved childhood game can be applied to our careers and reap similar rewards, provided we’re mindful about it.
Here’s to more showing and less telling, my coruscant friends.
P.S. Hey, didja know I share fresh new content Monday-Friday across the interwebs? Get first dibs by following me on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Forbes to get notified of my latest articles. (I’m also on Clubhouse if you dig that audio-only kind of thing.)
P.P.S. When I’m not writing this newsletter or sifting through “thought leader” search results on LinkedIn, I’m a social media ghostwriter. (Yep, that’s a thing). I help founders, entrepreneurs, and CXOs craft their stories to communicate and connect better by magnifying their reach and impact. (Think personal branding and thought leadership—the kind others bestow upon you. 😉) Learn more here.
P.P.P.S. You, my coruscant friend, have great taste in newsletters—thanks for subscribing! Be sure to check out the archives to catch up on previous issues, and feel free to share this one with your friends. Or better yet, invite them to join our Illuminate Me tribe!
*Do people still use these titles in their headlines? Maybe they’re cyclical or come and go in phases? For a while, it seemed all I saw were “(fill in the blank with your chosen industry) rockstar.” In full disclosure, I once used “Badass Blaschka” as part of my headline, but that’s only because my friends had given me that nickname and that sticky moniker followed me everywhere. A fun way that I kept the spirit of that alive was to move it to my “Skills” section on my LinkedIn profile. If you visit, you’ll have a chance to endorse me as a “Badass Writer.” Don’t believe me? Check out that little Easter egg here.