Companies and individuals frequently ask us to help them become “thought leaders.” But what does that even mean? Unfortunately, in recent years the term has become kind of ambiguous. It’s evolved into a euphemism for producing a lot of content about a particular topic (regardless of the quality or value of that content).

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Let’s break it down: first, and it may sound obvious, but you need to have some thoughts; that is, insightful and interesting things to say that haven’t already been said. Second, you need to be a leader, meaning you’re willing to be out in front, either going in a new direction, questioning the status quo, or breaking down common misperceptions. In short, thought leaders change the way people think or behave. Of course no thought leader will have the reach and influence of HP Enterprise CEO Antonio Neri or AI researcher Fei Fei Li. But you if you think you’re ready to be a thought leader, you should ask yourselves these questions first:

Do I have real (and interesting) insights?

Everyone has opinions. But in a world where anyone can instantly post their hot takes to social media, true insight is increasingly rare. How well do you understand the nuances of an industry, a technology or an issue and can you apply that in a way that feels fresh, new or provocative? A thought leader should be able to explain complex topics in simple language, diagnose the root causes of problems or issues and offer reasonably accurate predictions about where an industry or technology is going. In other words, your domain experience and understanding give you the ability to see and explain things that others can’t.

Do I have the right track record?

Being a thought leader isn’t about your title. But your experience and credentials should be meaningful enough that your intended audience can trust your opinions or insights about a particular topic. You need to have walked the walk before you can talk the talk. Now there are some caveats here; you can become a thought leader by studying an issue, doing in-depth research, interviewing lots of practitioners, etc. You don’t need to be a CEO, or world-renowned product designer. But at the end of the day, you need to be able to answer the question: “why should anyone care what I have to say about this?”

Do I have a differentiated point of view?

Being an expert on something isn’t by itself enough to make you a thought leader. If your perspective echoes what every other expert is saying it’s not likely going to be that interesting to a wider audience, especially to the media. True thought leaders don’t just run with the herd, they lead it. They set the agenda for the broader discourse, often with controversial or counterintuitive opinions and perspectives. That’s not to say you should be disagreeable or controversial just to stand out, but you should be able – and, more importantly, willing – to take a position that’s at odds with the prevailing wisdom when it’s appropriate.

Can I be objective?

This is a hard one for both individuals and companies. To be a true thought leader in a particular domain you can’t be overly self-serving or promotional. That means being willing to admit that you don’t have all the answers. Or that your own products or technology isn’t always the best or right for every customer. Honesty and authenticity is essential to the credibility of your perspective.

Am I willing and able to engage?

So you’ve asked yourself all of the above questions with a resounding “YES!” Now what? To be a thought leader, you need to participate in the important conversations in your industry – not just occasionally, but constantly. All of those great insights and perspectives won’t matter much if no one hears or reads them. And you also need to be willing to accept that sometimes you’re going to have to defend yourself because not everyone will always agree with you. All of this takes both time and commitment. If you want to be a thought leader, you can’t be too busy to get your thoughts into some kind of shareable format (articles, blogs, social media, rapid reaction outreach on breaking news, podcast, etc.) on a frequent basis. And you can’t be so thin-skinned that you get offended by negative feedback. Being a leader, after all, means you’re willing to stand by your convictions no matter what.

If, after you’ve read all this, you still believe that there’s a thought leader inside of you who’s ready and willing to break out, let us know. We can help.