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What Exactly Is a Thought Leader?

It’s much more than just being an expert in your field.

10
minute read
Published on
April 22, 2024
Information Source: The ROI of Thought Leadership | 2020 Executive Summary by Predictive ROI and Audience Audit

Thought leader is a loaded term in today’s online world. 

Some think it’s just a made-up title for wanna-be influencers who post videos on YouTube, LinkedIn, and social media. 

You’ve probably seen it before… “thought leaders” who think they’re revolutionizing the industry with grand ideas (and lofty video budgets). 

Others think thought leader is simply a more modern term for an expert—someone who knows their stuff and shares their knowledge and ideas with others. 

But what exactly is a thought leader? Are they just the influencers of the business world? Or are they something more? 

Even though there’s not yet a reliable definition, that doesn’t stop people from wanting to be one (maybe the mysterious nature of it all makes it that much more appealing). 

In fact, according to a survey by Audience Audit Inc. and Predictive ROI, 70% of respondents said they would like to be considered a thought leader or an expert. 

Because it’s true… thought leaders book more business and get more clients. They speak on bigger stages, reach more people, and change more lives. They impact the way people buy, what people think, and how people see the world. 

When you paint it like that, who wouldn’t want to be a thought leader? 

Our definition is still in the works

Here at HEROIC, we’ve wrestled with the term “thought leader” for a while. We’ve spent a lot of time digesting what this loaded term really means and figuring out what it takes to be a true thought leader. 

Here’s the thing…. We haven’t quite figured it out—yet. We’re still crafting our definition of thought leader. 

As we do, we’re going to take you on a quest—a journey of discovery, inspiration, and insight. Over the next four months, we’re going to investigate this loaded question: what exactly is a thought leader? 

The goal? To authentically understand and apply thought leadership from the inside out. And over the next few months, we hope to show you what it really takes to step on stage as a thought leader today. 

This is what we’ve learned so far…

There are 4 simple requirements (or so it seems)

You see, we’ve been researching and investigating what most people consider a thought leader. And there are four things that keep coming up over and over again. 

First, you need to be an expert in your area. 

After all, experts are knowledgeable teachers who share their wisdom with the world. 

But the truth is, experts are a dime a dozen. Every field of business, area of study, or niche has a LOT of experts. To rise above the masses of experts, you need to have (and be) something that other experts don’t. 

Being an expert, however, isn’t the only thing that makes you a thought leader.

Second, you need a community of followers and fans.  

Your expertise and knowledge inspire people to follow you and your work. Maybe you have a large community of email subscribers or maybe you offer online courses. If people listen to what you have to say and want to be part of your community, you’re on your way to being a thought leader. 

Third, you need to create content consistently. 

Generating content regularly builds your brand as a thought leader, shares your ideas on different platforms, and keeps an active profile in the online space. Many thought leaders post on LinkedIn, create videos on YouTube, or share their ideas on TikTok and social media. 

Fourth, you need to be authentic. 

A thought leader is all of these things, and most importantly, they’re authentic and genuinely passionate about what they do. They transmit integrity and trustworthiness to their followers and live what they preach. 

Umm… that’s it? 

It seems easy enough. Be an expert, build a community, create content, and be authentic. Is that really all there is to being a thought leader?

No. Definitely not. 

At first glance, these four ideas might seem simplistic and easy to accomplish. But over the next few months, as you join us on our quest to dissect thought leadership, you’ll discover there’s much more to each of these qualifications. 

To become a true thought leader, you have to dive deeper. 

Let’s tackle the first point right now: thought leaders are experts. 

After a quick Google search, that’s what most people would assume. You can find descriptions like “a person who specializes in their area” and “someone who shares ideas that show their expertise,” or “the knowledge leader in the field.”  

But the truth is, it’s not really about expertise. 

The statistics show that whether others consider you an expert or not isn’t as important as you might think. What matters most is the type of ideas you share. 

According to the research by Audience Audit and Predictive ROI, what makes someone a thought leader is their new, influential, and transformative ideas.

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Information Source: The ROI of Thought Leadership | 2020 Executive Summary by Predictive ROI and Audience Audit

Thought leaders are NOT experts—they’re visionaries

One of the biggest misconceptions in the thought leadership world is that expertise equals success. 

But just think about it—experts are everywhere! 

They’re speaking at conferences and webinars across the country. They’re sharing tips and tricks, secrets to success, and how-to information. They’re always working to find more resources and more methods, tactics, and strategies for their followers. 

And just when they think seven secrets to success is enough, another expert pushes past them with eight. They have to research more, market themselves more, and know more. 

They live in Expertville, and it’s a pretty crowded place. A place where everyone is constantly competing for attention. 

That’s why you don’t really want to be an expert at all. 

You see, it’s much more important to be a visionary. 

Visionary thinkers share original ideas and search for new answers. They share ideas that change how you think. They question conventional wisdom, challenge the status quo, and actively formulate a new approach. 

In Visionary Town, everybody knows your name. Rather than competing and comparing yourself to other experts, you spend your time creating new ideas. 

And the truth is, visionaries are few and far between. That’s why the majority of people follow just a couple thought leaders. According to the survey, 67% of people said they regularly follow three thought leaders. 

New and original ideas are what separate the experts from the visionary thought leaders.

How to share ideas the world hasn’t heard before

You know being an expert in your field isn’t enough. To qualify as a thought leader, you have to share ideas. 

But not just any type of ideas. 

According to the report, The ROI of Thought Leadership, the most important element that qualifies someone as a thought leader is sharing ideas that change how people approach their work and sharing ideas people haven’t heard before. 

Ideas that change the status quo. Ideas that challenge conventional wisdom. Ideas that make people feel, think, and act differently. New, transformational ideas. 

When you think of thought leaders as visionary thinkers, it sure slims down the thought leader group. The truth is, these people are very rare. 

Why? Because not everyone is willing to put in the work. Embarking on a visionary quest isn’t easy. It requires curiosity, research, effort, and patience. You’ll encounter roadblocks along the way and barriers that you’ll have to overcome to find your answer. 

It’s easier just to make a soapbox video and post it on social media. 

But truly visionary thought leaders add tremendous value. They don’t just leave their mark on the world, they create visionary ideas that change the world. 

The origin of  visionary ideas 

You might not yet have uncovered your visionary idea. Perhaps you’re an expert or have years of experience in your field. Maybe you’ve written a book or have a popular podcast. 

But are your ideas visionary? Are they new and transformational enough to make you a thought leader? 

You can discover if your ideas fall in the visionary realm or the expert realm using something we call The Visionary Quest Matrix. We created this graphic to differentiate ideas and topics. Just think of your core message or big idea, and ask yourself these two questions: 

  1. Is this idea commonly accepted or does it challenge conventional wisdom? 
  2. Do I share how-to information or how-to-think information? 

When you know the answers to these two questions, you can plot where you land on the Visionary Quest Matrix. 

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The Visionary Quest Matrix can show you whether you share expert advice or visionary ideas.

Ten Ways to Build Exceptional Client Relationships? That’s located straight in the bottom left quadrant—Center Street, Expertville.

5 Keys to Escaping the Stress Zone? That’s a how-to topic, and hundreds of experts could come up with steps, actionable takeaways, and simple techniques galore for dealing with stress. 

But how do you find visionary ideas? Where do ideas that challenge the status quo and change how people think come from? 

Most experts try to branch into thought leadership focusing only on their knowledge and fan base. But it’s not about gathering decades of experience in your field and shoving it into thought leadership packaging. 

Quite the opposite. It starts with thinking about what you don’t know.

X Mark icon
Don't
get trapped in Expertville.
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Do
embark on a Visionary Quest by asking one big question.

Embark on your Visionary Quest 

All you have to do is ask one question.  

You see, experts sell solutions. But visionary thinkers ask a question that takes them on a journey to find ideas and answers that didn’t exist before. 

We call this journey the Visionary Quest. 

This journey is what transforms you into a visionary thought leader. It leads you to uncover hidden truths and new ideas. It takes you out of Expertville and launches you into Visionary town. It establishes credibility and cements knowledge. 

And this entire journey begins with a single question. 

Visionary thought leaders ask a question Google can’t answer. 

Here’s the thing: true thought leaders don’t assume they have all the answers. And they don’t rush into a branded or feel-good solution. 

Research shows thought leaders are most effective when they share a combination of “tactical ‘get-it-done’ information” and “strategic ‘big idea’ information.” That’s what sets them apart from experts. The experts stop at “get-it-done,” but the thought leaders go further.  

Thought leaders inspire transformation with their visionary thinking, and help their audience transform with tactical next steps.

Thought leaders investigate the problem, ask questions others haven’t considered before, and search to find new answers that revolutionize how people act and think. 

These types of questions challenge conventional wisdom and mark the beginning of a quest for new answers and better solutions. 

Here’s just a few examples of questions that began a Visionary Quest: 

  • Ann Handley asked: “What would inspire marketers to take bigger risks?” 
  • Jay Baer asked: “Why don’t business owners learn from their bad reviews?” 
  • Mel Robbins asked: “How can I get people to act immediately?” 
  • Jay Acunzo asked: “Why don’t business people trust their intuition?” 

The journey to find the answer to these questions is what makes these individuals more than just experts. Yes, they know their stuff, but they don’t know it all. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find experts who have more tactical knowledge than these visionaries. 

You see, it’s not just expertise that makes someone a thought leader or visionary. It’s constantly asking questions and finding better answers. 

That’s what earns visionaries the keynote stage. And the experts? Well, you’ll find them in the basement below the ballroom, buried in a breakout room.

The keynote stage is for ideas that change the way people approach their work. 

Visionaries share those new ideas no one has heard before. Ideas they’ve discovered in their Visionary Quest. Ideas that change the status quo. Ideas that transform the way we see the world. 

The best place to share ideas 

To set yourself apart as a thought leader, start challenging conventional wisdom with new transformational ideas. 

Once you’re ready to share your ideas with the world, it’s time to find a place where you can share them with receptive listeners and build a community of trusting followers. 

And there’s one place that’s better than the rest when it comes to spreading ideas and sharing your message. 

The best place to share those ideas is on stage—as a speaker. 

According to the survey by Audience Audit and Predictive ROI, live speaking events are the best places for thought leaders to share their ideas, because that’s where the majority of people consume thought leadership content. 

You see, the most common way people consume thought leadership content isn’t listening to podcasts or watching interviews. It’s not reading email newsletters or scrolling on social media.  

It’s attending live speaking events. 

In fact, many people are more likely to trust a thought leader who is a professional speaker who delivers keynote speeches frequently. Speaking on stage is a powerful opportunity to branch into the thought leadership world, share your visionary ideas, and build a community of followers. 

To sum it all up, thought leaders ask questions Google can’t answer. They embark on visionary quests. They discover their own innovative and transformational ideas. Then, they take the stage and show the world their visionary ideas. 

Because if you want to be a thought leader, the keynote stage is the best place to be. 

To be continued…

Next month we’ll break down the types of followers and fans you need to be a thought leader. It’s not just about the quantity of followers you have; you actually want specific types of people to follow you and listen to your ideas (and share them with people they know).   

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Thought leaders are NOT experts—they’re visionaries

One of the biggest misconceptions in the thought leadership world is that expertise equals success. 

But just think about it—experts are everywhere! 

They’re speaking at conferences and webinars across the country. They’re sharing tips and tricks, secrets to success, and how-to information. They’re always working to find more resources and more methods, tactics, and strategies for their followers. 

And just when they think seven secrets to success is enough, another expert pushes past them with eight. They have to research more, market themselves more, and know more. 

They live in Expertville, and it’s a pretty crowded place. A place where everyone is constantly competing for attention. 

That’s why you don’t really want to be an expert at all. 

You see, it’s much more important to be a visionary. 

Visionary thinkers share original ideas and search for new answers. They share ideas that change how you think. They question conventional wisdom, challenge the status quo, and actively formulate a new approach. 

In Visionary Town, everybody knows your name. Rather than competing and comparing yourself to other experts, you spend your time creating new ideas. 

And the truth is, visionaries are few and far between. That’s why the majority of people follow just a couple thought leaders. According to the survey, 67% of people said they regularly follow three thought leaders. 

New and original ideas are what separate the experts from the visionary thought leaders.

How to share ideas the world hasn’t heard before

You know being an expert in your field isn’t enough. To qualify as a thought leader, you have to share ideas. 

But not just any type of ideas. 

According to the report, The ROI of Thought Leadership, the most important element that qualifies someone as a thought leader is sharing ideas that change how people approach their work and sharing ideas people haven’t heard before. 

Ideas that change the status quo. Ideas that challenge conventional wisdom. Ideas that make people feel, think, and act differently. New, transformational ideas. 

When you think of thought leaders as visionary thinkers, it sure slims down the thought leader group. The truth is, these people are very rare. 

Why? Because not everyone is willing to put in the work. Embarking on a visionary quest isn’t easy. It requires curiosity, research, effort, and patience. You’ll encounter roadblocks along the way and barriers that you’ll have to overcome to find your answer. 

It’s easier just to make a soapbox video and post it on social media. 

But truly visionary thought leaders add tremendous value. They don’t just leave their mark on the world, they create visionary ideas that change the world. 

The origin of  visionary ideas 

You might not yet have uncovered your visionary idea. Perhaps you’re an expert or have years of experience in your field. Maybe you’ve written a book or have a popular podcast. 

But are your ideas visionary? Are they new and transformational enough to make you a thought leader? 

You can discover if your ideas fall in the visionary realm or the expert realm using something we call The Visionary Quest Matrix. We created this graphic to differentiate ideas and topics. Just think of your core message or big idea, and ask yourself these two questions: 

  1. Is this idea commonly accepted or does it challenge conventional wisdom? 
  2. Do I share how-to information or how-to-think information? 

When you know the answers to these two questions, you can plot where you land on the Visionary Quest Matrix. 

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Information Source: The ROI of Thought Leadership | 2020 Executive Summary by Predictive ROI and Audience Audit

Ten Ways to Build Exceptional Client Relationships? That’s located straight in the bottom left quadrant—Center Street, Expertville.

5 Keys to Escaping the Stress Zone? That’s a how-to topic, and hundreds of experts could come up with steps, actionable takeaways, and simple techniques galore for dealing with stress. 

But how do you find visionary ideas? Where do ideas that challenge the status quo and change how people think come from? 

Most experts try to branch into thought leadership focusing only on their knowledge and fan base. But it’s not about gathering decades of experience in your field and shoving it into thought leadership packaging. 

Quite the opposite. It starts with thinking about what you don’t know.

X Mark icon
Don't
get trapped in Expertville.
Check mark icon
Do
embark on a Visionary Quest by asking one big question.
,

Embark on your Visionary Quest 

All you have to do is ask one question.  

You see, experts sell solutions. But visionary thinkers ask a question that takes them on a journey to find ideas and answers that didn’t exist before. 

We call this journey the Visionary Quest. 

This journey is what transforms you into a visionary thought leader. It leads you to uncover hidden truths and new ideas. It takes you out of Expertville and launches you into Visionary town. It establishes credibility and cements knowledge. 

And this entire journey begins with a single question. 

Visionary thought leaders ask a question Google can’t answer. 

Here’s the thing: true thought leaders don’t assume they have all the answers. And they don’t rush into a branded or feel-good solution. 

Research shows thought leaders are most effective when they share a combination of “tactical ‘get-it-done’ information” and “strategic ‘big idea’ information.” That’s what sets them apart from experts. The experts stop at “get-it-done,” but the thought leaders go further.  

Thought leaders inspire transformation with their visionary thinking, and help their audience transform with tactical next steps.

Thought leaders investigate the problem, ask questions others haven’t considered before, and search to find new answers that revolutionize how people act and think. 

These types of questions challenge conventional wisdom and mark the beginning of a quest for new answers and better solutions. 

Here’s just a few examples of questions that began a Visionary Quest: 

  • Ann Handley asked: “What would inspire marketers to take bigger risks?” 
  • Jay Baer asked: “Why don’t business owners learn from their bad reviews?” 
  • Mel Robbins asked: “How can I get people to act immediately?” 
  • Jay Acunzo asked: “Why don’t business people trust their intuition?” 

The journey to find the answer to these questions is what makes these individuals more than just experts. Yes, they know their stuff, but they don’t know it all. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find experts who have more tactical knowledge than these visionaries. 

You see, it’s not just expertise that makes someone a thought leader or visionary. It’s constantly asking questions and finding better answers. 

That’s what earns visionaries the keynote stage. And the experts? Well, you’ll find them in the basement below the ballroom, buried in a breakout room.

The keynote stage is for ideas that change the way people approach their work. 

Visionaries share those new ideas no one has heard before. Ideas they’ve discovered in their Visionary Quest. Ideas that change the status quo. Ideas that transform the way we see the world. 

The best place to share ideas 

To set yourself apart as a thought leader, start challenging conventional wisdom with new transformational ideas. 

Once you’re ready to share your ideas with the world, it’s time to find a place where you can share them with receptive listeners and build a community of trusting followers. 

And there’s one place that’s better than the rest when it comes to spreading ideas and sharing your message. 

The best place to share those ideas is on stage—as a speaker. 

According to the survey by Audience Audit and Predictive ROI, live speaking events are the best places for thought leaders to share their ideas, because that’s where the majority of people consume thought leadership content. 

You see, the most common way people consume thought leadership content isn’t listening to podcasts or watching interviews. It’s not reading email newsletters or scrolling on social media.  

It’s attending live speaking events. 

In fact, many people are more likely to trust a thought leader who is a professional speaker who delivers keynote speeches frequently. Speaking on stage is a powerful opportunity to branch into the thought leadership world, share your visionary ideas, and build a community of followers. 

To sum it all up, thought leaders ask questions Google can’t answer. They embark on visionary quests. They discover their own innovative and transformational ideas. Then, they take the stage and show the world their visionary ideas. 

Because if you want to be a thought leader, the keynote stage is the best place to be. 

To be continued…

Next month we’ll break down the types of followers and fans you need to be a thought leader. It’s not just about the quantity of followers you have; you actually want specific types of people to follow you and listen to your ideas (and share them with people they know).   

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