Since I began writing for Inc over a year ago, I've had several emails come my way from readers who are interested in becoming thought leaders. The way they see it, they don't just want to be known for having a successful business, they also want to make a major impact and be known for a particular expertise.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "thought leader" originated in the late 19th century. In the last decade or so, it's experienced a bit of a revival - especially in the business world.

Simply put, a "thought leader" as we know it today refers to an individual who specializes in a particular subject and whose expertise is sought after. For example, I've been called a "millennial thought leader" on more than one occasion because I've been writing about millennials since 2010. In fact, I often joke that I accidentally became a thought leader because I had no idea where a blog would take me. I was just writing what I thought was common sense at the time.

That being said, how does one actually become a thought leader? What are the characteristics of a thought leader? Based on my observations, there are some key elements that all thought leaders seem to possess.

They have a compelling story.

Most of the experts and thought leaders that have some semblance of success also seem to have a very compelling story. The most common story seems to be one of struggle to triumph. More specifically, the struggle the leader experienced is often times (though not always) the same or similar struggle their audience is currently facing.

They know their audience very well.

I know I harp on the importance of knowing your audience in my column, but it's with good reason. One of those reasons is I've noticed how successful thought leaders know their audiences better than their audiences know themselves.

Granted, a big part of this is likely because they struggled in a similar way their audience is currently struggling. But another big part of that is market research often times in the form of having conversations with people to find out what their issues are and then trying to find the solutions.

They have an opinion.

Another common characteristic successful thought leaders seem to possess is some sort of an opinion. Not only do they have an opinion, but it's not necessarily a common one.

In his book, "Expert Secrets", Russell Brunsun discusses this phenomenon. He notes how leaders who start movements fall somewhere in the middle between mainstream and crazy. Their opinion is out there enough to be a unique perspective but is still based in reality.

One example I can think of from my own career was when I wrote a defense of millennials who had to move back home after college. First, because I was one of them and lived to tell the tale. Second, because the pressure to move out when it makes no financial sense to do so was mind boggling to me.

This was actually the first thing I ever wrote that was picked up by a media outlet. Now that I look back on it, I understand why. It certainly wasn't the mainstream opinion for the time, but it was based in the reality that moving back home had several financial advantages for millennials.

They put themselves out there often.

The last common characteristic I've seen from successful thought leaders - particularly those who started from nothing or haven't sold a company for millions of dollars - is a consistency in putting themselves out there.

People often struggle with the self-promotion and social media marketing because they think they need to be perfect. The reality is if you look at some of the most effective thought leaders, they aren't really worried about being perfect. Instead, they just focus on getting a message out.

Final Thoughts

If you want to be a thought leader, start thinking about some of the ways you can start adding some of these elements into your own personal brand. With consistency, you'll soon start to see a movement starting to build.

Published on: Aug 24, 2017