What makes a thought leader?

I’ve been called a “thought leader” lately. It’s a lot better than some other things I’ve been called in my life, but still, it’s a label I’ve been trying to understand—so much so that I facilitated a session on it at last month’s Opportunity Collaboration.

When I first heard the term, I did a bit of sleuthing to understand its origin. It seems it comes from the private sector. (Isn’t most of the “latest” aid and philanthropy jargon just the last decade’s business terms?) The best definition I found to work from was “proprietary command over a challenging industry issue.”

Clearly other people wanted to unpack what it meant too. To a packed room at the Opportunity Collaboration, I opened the session with the following:

When I say the term “thought leader,” someone probably comes to mind. Picture in your mind a person who epitomizes “thought leadership” to you. How would you describe this person? What makes them a thought leader? What skills and qualities do they have? In what arenas do other people besides you recognize them as a thought leader? How did they become thought leaders? What differentiates them from their peers? Would they consider themselves a thought leader?

Then I asked people for their short definitions of a thought leader. Here’s some of what they said, which I then developed into a list “You know you’re a thought leader when…” at the end of this post:

“framing game-changing ideas”

“inspired/inspiring visionary”

“integrity: living what they say”

“ahead of his/her time”

“provocative and courageous”

“advancing ideas before yourself or your organization”

“continued curiosity”

So to be a thought leader, you must do great work; communicate clearly, concisely and powerfully; and build a solid network of people ready and willing to hear what you have to say—these are what I call the 3 R’s of Thought Leadership:

  1. Results – Why do you know that what you’re doing is important? How do you know that it’s any different than from what everyone else is doing?
  2. Rhetoric – What are the most important messages you must share with your key audiences? What are the 3 most important messages you must share, in seven words?
  3. Relationships – Who are the people who need to receive these messages? Most importantly, from whom do they get their information?

A naysayer in the audience (there’s always one!) challenged me as to how these 3 R’s were any different from a solid communications strategy. I answered that I honestly didn’t know. As I tried to understand thought leadership for myself, these are the most important things that keep coming to my attention.

The more I’ve thought about it, however, I realized that in communications strategies, information is pushed out to people. With thought leadership, you draw people in. Even the best communications strategies can leave people feeling manipulated. Think about the Facebook ads on the right of the screen. Thought leadership is present when people are inspired and ideas travel farther than blog posts. But I wonder, does Arturo Escobar ever wish he had written The End of Poverty?

I don’t think that much of what I write and share via how-matters.org is necessarily proprietary, but it does seem to fill a gap for people. I hear from folks that I’m giving voice to the “hey, but how does this work, really, for the people being assisted?” It seems this is still too rare of a conversation in our various social good endeavors. (Big shout-out to The OpEd Project, an organization increasing the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world, and where I got my first injection of confidence to start how-matters.org!)

Anyone can be a thought leader, but you have to put in the work and stay true to your unique point of view. How-matters.org is where I apply my intellect, live my values, and share my vision for the future to which I’m contributing.

To be a thought leader, figure out what the you-shaped hole in the world is. Then go forward, knowing only you can fill it.


You know you’re a thought leader when…

  • You portray “know-how” as your key asset.
  • You offer new thinking and original perspectives. Your insights help other people improve their work.
  • You understand how your expertise and experience lends to your credibility and you are not afraid to share it.
  • You understand the domains in which your experience and expertise could be useful.
  • You balance your right brain (conceptualizing, analogies, alternatives) with your left brain (structuring, logic, boundaries).
  • You are recognized among your peers. When an issue comes up or an event occurs, they look to you to inform their perspective.
  • You know that preaching to the choir doesn’t convert anyone. You also know how to keep the choir from losing their faith.

What else would be on the list for you?


Related Posts

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Ideas please! Help shape the next “How Matters Hub”

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Development Work: A Labor of Love…and Paradox

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  1. You’ve hinted at this throughout, but I would also add that a real thought leader is someone who gets negative feedback from time to time. I’ve always believed that if you are not rocking the boat a little bit, and challenging existing perspectives, then you are not doing an effective job.

    When you challenge the status quo, you are invariably going to upset some people’s frames of mind and create some cognitive dissonance. This often results in people challenging you back, or even attacking you. This isn’t a bad thing. This is a sign that (at the very least), you’re making people think. If all you are doing is sitting in big rooms making people nod repetitively (from either agreement or sleepiness), then you’re not doing much useful at all.

  2. Sayed Saeed

    This the time to think about long term impact of Humanitarian Aid parallel to on the spot relief assistance to a particular targeted communit rather than short term relief with handicapping of the society culture, Attitude and behaviour for ages. Indepht study is needed; Afghanistan conflict is a potential research spot.

  3. You might consider yourself a thought leader when you find people doing what you said you thought of a long time ago.

    But you’re not then….

    You will be when others come up to you and say “Do you remember what you said to me a number of years ago? Well here’s what I’ve done with your thought.”

    You need a great deal of hope and patience to continue working for change, and you may not even be aware that something you thought of has made a difference.

  4. Tshidi

    This thought provoking question is imperative as the term can be used loosely at leadership seminars. Thinking out of the box is essential by simply focusing on local issues using global context to meet those needs. Ensuring that the out-of the box thoughts can be smart even though they are daring

  5. I love this definition from a gentleman in India, via LinkedIn:
    “A thought leader is one who is inspired by statesman-like vision with a built-in component of reality check.”
    Also this addition from a Twitter follower:
    “I would add ‘relatability’ which is related to those Rs, but focuses on how you come across in your message.”

  6. Shenard Mazengera

    Very thought provoking and I liked reading this post. I would add experimentation and provision of a scope for bouncing off new ideas or discussions points. I think thought leaders should not be know-it-all types. Rather, people who can lead forward, or reverse when need be. Not just being looked upon, but those who can also take and acknowledge other peoples ideas as worthwhile. Intelligent, inquisite and open minded.

  7. Epede M. Ngalle

    …” he thinks and does things that people could hardly margin , in other words his line of thinking bids the imagination of the people around him…in fact he is a visionary (he carries a vision)”. That’s who and what I suppose a thought leader is.

  8. Great thoughts from @aidnography on his “Links I Liked” post: “Jennifer Lentfer’s post got me thinking for a while. Less about the concept of a ‘thought leader’, but more about the questions whether or what kind of resources a ‘thought leader’ needs. My initial answer would be that ‘thought leadership’ to a certain extent needs institutional, financial or other kind of ‘establishment’ power. Your elite university affiliation, philanthropical backing or (mainstream) media presence in one way or another is part in the process of becoming the attention as ‘thought leader’ (I know, a bit of a chicken-and-egg challenge…). Otherwise you may be a ‘thought provoker’ or ‘critical voice’ etc., but I wonder whether leadership without some form of traditional power is possible (yet?).” http://aidnography.blogspot.com/2012/11/links-contents-i-liked-51.html

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  10. I think part of being a thought leader is being reflective. Because you Jennifer are reflective, you see what others do not see, and when you show it they say: she’s soooo right! Moreover, because you take a reflective stance it helps people to follow your ‘thoughts’.

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