How to Become a Thought Leader

Amidst the cherry blossoms, MLK stands tall

“Far more commonly, [futurists are] weird people with weird ideas and practices, and are objects of ridicule,” Bruce Sterling

True thought leadership helps people — on and offline — understand the near future, the far future, and often the evolving now. Thought leaders are futurists, people who serve as modern oracles that can help businesses, organizations and societies adapt to the unknown. They break new ground and help us understand how change will impact us, technologically or sociologically.

You see blogs titled like this periodically, and they get tons of attention from top online voices. Invariably, the post is how to promote one’s self as a thought leader, not actually how to offer valuable thought. And that’s a damn shame because while this will certainly vault someone to the level of modern pundit, it rarely achieves the desired effect of producing true thought leadership. So how do you become a real thought leader?

Just to be clear, popularity is not the answer, though it can help secure a perception of thought leadership. However, you can develop the expertise and offer the insights to walk the talk. There are two primary paths to this lofty goal, and both of them require work.

Become a Subject Matter Expert

The first is to become a subject matter expert. Specifically, you need to develop true domain or vertical expertise that empowers you to accurately forecast the trends of now, or the immediate future. This takes a lot of work, often years of real industry experience (sorry to those who thought a personal brand would cut it).

The Zombies on My Desk
Today’s pundits seem more like zombies than thought leaders

This expertise is one dictionary definition of a pundit, but in reality today’s pundits are more commentators, often blow-hards, critics and bloggers that lack the chops to offer true depth of thought. They rely on others’ past experiences, general market memes, and history to guide them. For example, consider marketing bloggers who don’t know how to deliver ROI. Need I say more?

While history informs the future, it is often subjective and revisionist in nature. No one saw Netflix as a DVD mailer service, nor as an online delivery house, nor its PR implosion last year. The video market pundits had no idea any of these three events were coming. History adds context, but it is not definitive. A subject matter expert needs to be able to anticipate the next move.

In addition to those who cultivate expertise, business leaders who have had significant successes fall into this role. They want to stay in the public eye, yet not necessarily in the same vein as their prior successes. Jack Welch is a classic example. Successful Entrepreneur Anil Dash is a more modern sector specific example.

Read the Future

Our second path to thought leadership is the ability to accurately (at least within reason) forecast the future. This does not mean read the stars or get your palm read.

Frontiers Concert w/ Stewart Brand & Bruce Sterling
Image of Acclaimed Science Fiction Writer Bruce Sterling by frontiersofinteraction

Bruce Sterling just wrote an article for the Smithsonian Magazine on methods to become a futurist. It did inform some of my thinking on the subject matter expert section, and lists several ways to read the future, including data analysis, reporting (or open sourced intelligence) and scenario forecasting.

All of these methods are common business approaches to develop marketing strategies. Opened to your public, these types of insights delivered regularly can fuel thought leadership. Before the commercialization of the social web, this was a common method for developing a top blog.

I like this type of approach because done well it builds value for people. It can also build value for your business, too. It’s how analyst firms like Altimeter Group, Forrester and Gartner create the thought leadership roles that empowers them to charge thousands of dollars for reports, and more for consulting services.


Both of these methods — true subject matter expertise and forecasting the future — can provide substance to thought leadership claims. Coupled with an effective outreach program, this kind of industry leadership program can be impactful and sustainable.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Sterling article was its discussion of niches and the edge. The future is happening now, said Sterling, just in small sub markets away from the mainstream eye. It is the place of oddities that the advancements of the near future are happening. Understanding what’s next is much less about reading the common memes of now, and much more about exploring the data trends and developments on the fringe.

What do you think about thought leadership?