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?


  • I’m in the Seth Godin camp. Becoming a thought leader is akin to stepping up to lead your tribe. You do it because there is a need for you to do it.

    • Maybe. I’m not really a Seth fan, and I would counter that people lead in spite of the “tribe” not thinking that’s the right direction.

  • I am loving this post!  I asked my Facebook community a few weeks ago to identify types of content that would be considered coming from a thought leader.  Here is the results (link to the results of the poll that I pasted on my page, hope you don’t mind)

    •  I am glad your readers seem to feel the same way!  New important ideas are what are needed, not great promo. 

  • Pundits are entertainers; thought leaders are people whose insights and ideas can help you grow.  However, it seems to me that people sometimes get anointed as thought leaders for subjective reasons, including the advantages that accrue to the anointer (effectively making them a thought leader as well).

    Demonstrated subject matter expertise and accomplishments should be a given.

    Futurist path:  this path is pretty risky, IMHO.  I don’t think you can get there without demonstrated subject matter expertise – at least in data analysis, research, etc.  I think it’s more properly a subset of expertise, but maybe I should read the Sterling article.

    Despite all that, I would never feel comfortable completely following the pronouncements of a thought leader, especially someone who has no vested interest in my success.

    •  Some good thoughts here, Mark. I agree with you on needing subject matter expertise to be a good futurist.  You need the context. And I also agree that we should question everything. Thank you for coming by!

  • Bruce,

    Enjoyed the post.

    I do think the term “thought leadership” has been watered down over the years to include virtually anyone with an opinion.

    Instead, I think it’s about perspectives and actions that advance a cause, issue or even an industry.

    Companies often fall into the trap of taking an inward focus with thought leadership should be all about an outward look.

    My two cents.


    •  Actions that advance a cause, issue or industry sounds like marketing or public affairs to me, not thought leadership. I may be getting caught on the words.

  • At the risk of being a link spammer, I’ll let this post be my answer to your question about thought leadership :)

    Cheers, sir!

    • I remember the breeder article, and the whole kerfuffle we got in with that!  I think the original concept had a lot to do with being first. Who cam up with concepts first, or evangelized them in the face of the norm.  In many ways you could say they are thought rejection creators. LOL.

  • Jesus. Do you realize what you’ve done? Now we’re going to have to endure an onslaught of newly minted “futurists” and “thought leaders” at what used to be social media… err… Content Strategy err… Digital Influencer conferences. Now I know how sharks learn to jump. ;)

    • LOL. But they would still have to do the work, no?  It’s about doing the work to deliver the value, IMO. 

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