You can—but it’s not easy. And it takes a lot more than sitting at a computer while the children are nestled all snug in their beds and visions of thought leadership dance in your head.
How do I know? Some of my clients are truly visionaries and leaders in their fields. I know what they’ve done to set themselves apart. In a few cases I’ve helped, but mostly I’ve marveled at their approach, energy, and most importantly persistence.
To be seen as a groundbreaking thinker, here are a few principles you must embrace:
You must start with show, not tell. Everyone has ideas. Ideas are cheap. Talk is even cheaper. We listen to leading thinkers because their ideas have been validated by success. Think about it: Would anyone consider Tony Hsieh to be a leading thinker in customer service and employee engagement if Zappos hadn’t experienced tremendous growth? Sure, occasionally a Chris Anderson will popularize a concept like the Long Tail, but he had already built a platform at Wired where he could share his ideas. (A visionary without a platform is a tree that falls in the forest and makes no sound.) When you prove your vision is valid, gaining recognition for visionary thinking is much easier.
If everyone agrees, you’re preaching to the choir. Most of us follow basic business principles. How we apply those principles may be (slightly) different because each of us is unique… but not really. To be a groundbreaker you must take a very different approach, and that means many people will disagree with your thinking even after you’ve proven you’re right. See push back as a sign you may really be on to something. But also make sure you’re prepared to take the heat when others attack—because they will.
You have to start small. Cobbling together a platform and building a following is incredibly hard. The Wall Street Journal won’t take your calls, but trade publications, local papers, radio stations, and moderately influential bloggers may, especially when you have something different to say and a story that proves your point. In some cases smaller mainstream media outlets not only don’t mind when you reach out, they want you to reach out, because many are starved for content. Be humble and speak and write for just about anyone who will have you. If you’re only willing to start at the top, you’ll never get started.
For a while no one will listen. And that’s okay. Groundbreakers not only have great ideas, they effectively communicate those ideas. You must be able to write and speak extremely well. Unless you have the resources to hire a ghostwriter to write articles, books, speeches, etc., it’s all on you. That’s another reason starting small is important; not only do you get to refine your message but you also get lots of practice writing and speaking.
And most importantly…
You must be sure the effort is worth it. If you’re a consultant or an author, being seen as a groundbreaking thinker can have a direct payoff. Heightened credibility and increased visibility can create broader opportunities, drive higher fees, and boost revenues. But in many cases the only boost you can receive is to your ego. Building a platform and an audience for your ideas is really, really hard. You’ll invest countless hours writing, speaking, promoting, and networking, possibly for very little return. Take a hard look at the tangible benefits you expect to receive. If you can’t quantify the return, put your time into other activities that will produce a real return.
If it’s just about your ego, you’ll never succeed, and in fact probably shouldn’t—because groundbreaking thinkers place all the emphasis on their ideas, not on themselves.