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From the Trenches

Why Calling Yourself a Thought Leader Doesn’t Make You One

Mike Sweeney | October 24, 2016
Why Calling Yourself a Thought Leader Doesn’t Make You One

We all know the guy. He’s on the road 157 days a year, speaking at 37 events in 33 cities. When he’s not on the road, he’s publishing like a maniac: blog posts on his own website, bylined articles for the local business journal, and a weekly podcast. Yes, he owns a company, but his company is not his brand. He is his brand.

When he shows up to speak at an event, hundreds show up in the room. He gives the same speech at all 37 events — swapping in, of course, a reference to a local bar or the city’s football team to warm up the crowd. And when he’s done speaking, 90 percent of the audience feels like they just listened to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, except in relation to their super-nichey, geek-laden industry.

The other 10 percent come to the following realization: They just listened to a hollow chocolate bunny.

The guy hasn’t “practiced” anything in years, because once you’re on the circuit, once you hear the roar of the crowd, once you realize that in your non-speaking, non-publishing, non-podcasting time that you can charge $500 an hour to sit in a room and “consult,” why would you ever turn back?

That’s the life of what some people would call a thought leader — but it’s not the life of an authentic thought leader.

Here is what it means to be an authentic thought leader.

Your message doesn’t always have to be revolutionary; it just has to be different.

Revolutionary. Disruptive. Prophetic. These are words that used to be reserved for truly radical cultural and societal thinking, but are now thrown around ad nauseam in daily business dealings. In fact, those words are misused with such frequency that a skeptic like me hears them and immediately assumes the opposite — this “thing” must be just like something else I’ve seen, but repackaged in a different way.

In his book, “Psychology in Organizations: The Social Identity Approach,” Alexander Haslam quoted Douglas McGregor as saying, “What sometimes appear to be new strategies — decentralization, management by objective, consultative supervision, ‘democratic’ leadership — are usually but old wine in new bottles.”

The authentic thought leader doesn’t feel the need to call everything he or she is saying revolutionary. The point is that you are thinking about an issue, situation, or problem differently (thought), and you’re willing to take the risk associated with saying it, evangelizing it, and asking other people to follow it (leadership).

Your message must be consistent, but not identical every single time.

 I often have the opportunity to help companies build out their brand and messaging framework, which results in, among other things, a messaging guide. When I deliver the messaging guide, one of the first things I say is, “These are concepts and words which should serve as the guiding light for everything you do from here on out, but they rarely, if ever, should be used verbatim.”

Sadly, though, that’s what we get from the inauthentic thought leaders. Scripted presentations, down to the punch line and the facial expressions, at all 37 events in 33 cities. They are actors — just not the ones who get paid $20 million per film.

For authentic thought leaders, acting is not an option — nor is it necessary. They’re simply so comfortable with and confident in their message that it’s ingrained in the way they think, speak, and lead. This allows them to always deliver a consistent message — but also gives them the freedom to go off script and change the way they deliver it based on the situation and audience.

 Your message should flow from the inside out, not the outside in.

“Have you watched the YouTube video of my presentation at DorkCon 2016? THAT is what I am trying to get across to you. We can change the game,” says thoughtless non-leader CEO to his head of engineering.

If you’re leading a company and you’re a thought leader, then you need to work from the inside out. You should worry about the message to your people — the people who shed blood, sweat, and tears for your company — before you worry about your message to the masses.

The authentic thought leader starts with the people in the inner circle. You share your ideas with one person, and then the next, and then the next. You build support from the ground up. And you do it with enthusiasm unknown to mankind. Just make sure it’s your own brand of enthusiasm, because remember, the loudest voice isn’t always the strongest one.

Authentic thought leadership can be influenced, but not created, by marketing.

Great marketing is a beautiful thing, but all it’s designed to do is present a person, product, service, or concept in the best light possible. It can’t turn Vanilla Ice into Bruce Springsteen, Harold Miner into Michael Jordan, or Marissa Mayer into Steve Jobs.

Being a business owner or CEO doesn’t make you an authentic thought leader. Being the head of a non-profit doesn’t make you an authentic thought leader. Being an author doesn’t make you an authentic thought leader. Calling yourself a thought leader does not make you one.

Authentic thought leadership starts with someone who is willing to share a way of thinking that may make some people feel uncomfortable or unsettled — a solid chocolate bunny who is more concerned with what he or she is saying and how it’s being said than how many people are in the audience listening. Only then can you add marketing to amplify an already-unique message

It’s up to your audience — the ones hearing your unique, consistent, enthusiastic message — to decide. Need helping getting that message into the world? Get in touch.

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About Mike Sweeney:

As Right Source’s co-founder and CEO, Mike Sweeney creates, plans, and implements our vision, mission, culture, and strategic direction as well as serving as an advisor to our clients. Mike received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in marketing from the University of Notre Dame and has more than 20 years of experience in B2B marketing strategy, including digital, content, and marketing technology. You can find Mike on Twitter and LinkedIn, or read his other posts.