Some Thoughts on Thought Leadership

In the Information Age, thought leaders have value. However, that value is only redeemable if a large enough group of people know your thoughts are worth paying attention to.

As Ryan O’Connell of Influence&CO. wrote, “Sometimes, it’s not what you know – it’s who else knows that you know what you know.” You know what he means.

Being recognized as a thought leader can be heady, motivating and profitable. But such recognition rarely just happens. It takes concentrated effort.

First, you have to have some thoughts worth sharing. Second, you have to find ways to share them so people see them.

Thoughts worth sharing

Thought leaders push boundaries. They tend to point out what’s on the horizon, not what’s in the rearview mirror. They provoke, inspire and challenge.

But there is a more mundane side to thought leadership that is just as valid. This kind of thought leader is a star at explaining what’s useful and relevant to his or her followers. Their skill is making something muddy seem clear.

A trait of thought leaders is a willingness to share. Their currency is information and they trade what they know to learn what you know. Like any good trader, they know the value of arbitrage and can combine what they know and you know into something a lot of other people want to know. Think of it as a form of assembling a thought worth knowing.

Thought leaders are learners. They aren’t satisfied with what they knew in the past or know now. They are driven to find out what they need to know tomorrow and the next day. Their quest is a GPS guide of thought leadership.

Content marketing campaigns center on useful and relevant information, which is the terroir of thought leaders. In fact, content marketing campaigns don’t really bear much fruit without thought leadership.

Thoughts that get shared

If thought leaders jotted down their provocative, useful and shareable thoughts only in their own journals, they wouldn’t be leaders regardless of how thoughtful they might be. Becoming a leader with something to say requires becoming a voice that is channeled so it is heard.

The digital world has made that much easier, and much harder. There are many platforms that thought leaders can use to publish or broadcast their big thoughts. Blogs, websites, YouTube channels, podcasts, ebooks, webinars and online forums are just some of the stages where thought leaders can perform. And that’s what makes the task harder. It is humanly impossible to be a thought leader everywhere at once.

So, the challenge of being heard isn’t how much you do, but where you do it. You need to project your thought leadership to places where your followers are listening or at least open to your thoughts. This can involve trial and error. You might think one channel leads to the promised land only to discover that other paths are more productive. It is best to try multiple channels, then concentrate on those with the best results and best alignment with your message.

As TED Talk speakers have shown, your message will resonate more if it is presented in an entertaining way. Thought leaders should give their listeners the equivalent of an irresistible and much appreciated hot cup of cocoa on a snowy day.

The ultimate goal of a thought leader is to emerge as an influencer. Thoughts are good. Thoughts that lead are great. As is the case for all forms of leadership, you aren’t a leader unless you have followers. You gain followers by giving them the incentive to follow – and with clear directions on how and where to follow.


Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.