Thought leaders are go-to people based on their recognized expertise in a field. But they didn't become thought leaders by dreaming up big ideas. Many developed their keen insights through a disciplined use of research.
Too often people trivialize research as the equivalent of sticking a wet finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. Political candidates are criticized for lacking political backbone because they constantly poll their constituents.
Research covers a much wider landscape. Leaders in many fields — science, business, culture and politics — employ different kinds of research from which they can draw insights. Those insights may include previously undetected patterns of behavior, strong causal relationships or contradictory views.
Research findings, in turn, can become the grist for essays, op-eds or blog posts, helping to earn a reputation for the writer as a trusted thought leader.
That reputation is solidified if research findings are well-founded, credible and relevant to readers. Thought leaders don't pose on totem poles; they offer practical commentary on subjects that affect their audiences.
Insight can be gleaned from both quantitative and qualitative research. If you need solid statistics, surveys can do the trick. If you need a better understanding of context and responses to words and images, focus groups will do.
Research that can produce thought-provoking insights results from creative question development. If you ask questions about pedestrian topics, you are apt to get pedestrian information. However, if you probe emerging issues or new perspectives on persistent problems, you may uncover fresh ideas and outlooks.
Thought leadership based on solid research isn't telling people what they want to hear. It is more like discovering and describing what people would like to know.
In a world where people demand more engagement with brands they buy and candidates they support, thought leadership plays a vital role. Thought leaders can enhance their reputations and widen their audience by using research tools to unlock valuable information that may be hiding in plain sight.
If you already are a thought leader or aspire to be one, give thought to research. It could be the difference in whether people give you a second thought.