We live in an age where thought leadership is extremely relative. You could be a thought leader in your local community, a thought leader on Instagram, a thought leader in the foodie blogosphere, a thought leader in politics at large, or even just a thought leader within your group of friends of Facebook--people look to you for the best restaurant recommendations.
As a result, the concept of building influence has become a hot topic--and rightfully so. Think if you're a brand looking to reach Millennials. Well, according to Kissmetrics, 93% of Millennials have made a purchase based on a recommendation from friends and family, and 89% of Millennials trust these recommendations more than they do the claims of the brand itself.
Influence, we are learning (in our hyper-connected society) is tremendously valuable. It's why big brands pay big money for ads on a stay-at-home Mom's YouTube channel, or for an Instagram model to snap a picture of them drinking out of their branded shaker cup.
But even though influence is relative, it is also the foundation of building something truly impactful. Some of the greatest thought leaders of the past two decades have used new media platforms and channels to take their astounding knowledge and build empires that stretched far outside their originally tight-knit niches.
1. Richard Branson
Do you know what came before Richard Branson launched his famed Virgin Records? At the age of sixteen, he started his first business venture, a magazine called Student. It was intended to give voice to his younger generation and touch on the topics kids in high school wanted to read about: music, art, culture, etc. Then, in 1970, he set up a mail-order record business--a sort of distribution option for records, instead of having to purchase them in-store. Two years later (and after many hard-learned lessons), he opened a chain of record stores alongside Virgin Records, his label. He tells all these stories in detail in his memoir, Losing My Virginity.
But Richard Branson's claim to fame hasn't been music, or even his Virgin brand at large (including his Virgin Atlantic airline). Richard Branson is a sort of testament for free-thinking and creative problem solving. He is an active speaker and advocate for entrepreneurship, in both conventional and unconventional ways. He is practical yet fearless, experienced but open to new possibilities. He is a walking contradiction in all the best ways, and his greatest claim to fame, one to could argue, has been his ability to inspire entrepreneurs to think bigger than their industry.
Is there any finer example of influence than Oprah?
From poverty in rural Mississippi to becoming North America's first and only black multi-billionaire, Oprah's ability to impact people's lives for the better stretches so far outside the conventional measures of success. Talk show host, actress, producer, philanthropist, media proprietor, and more, what Oprah really did was open the door for human stories to be told (and heard) around the world.
One of the things that really set Oprah apart was her willingness to discuss her challenging upbringing. She has publicly stated that she was molested during her childhood, and became pregnant at the age of 14--and lost her son in infancy. These brutal experiences did far more than just shape Oprah as a person. They gave her a foundation to show others that they were in a safe space to share their own story with the world. It's no wonder her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, was the highest-rated television program of its kind in history.
3. Steve Jobs
Hate him or love him, Steve Jobs did far more than influence the technology landscape. He raised the bar and changed the expectation of what it truly means to create a product of value.
In today's world of "overnight entrepreneurs," very few can truly call themselves an inventor--and have that title hold the same weight we attribute to someone like Leonardo DaVinci, for example.
Putting aside the magnificent industry shifts Steve Jobs and Apple caused in massive markets--personal computers, music, and telephones--Jobs was an artist first and a businessman second. While the rest of his competition was focusing on what would be effective, easy to scale, and profitable, Jobs went after what was beautiful. As shown in any one of the documentary-style films that have aired since his death, he refused to compromise attention to detail for profit margin.
When you hear the name "Steve Jobs" today, it means much more than just "the inventor behind Apple's finest products." It is, no different than the Apple brand, a symbol of uncompromising thinking, and a refusal to accept the status quo. And this level of attention to detail has had a lasting impact on not just designers, art directors, inventors and creatives everywhere, but on entire industries looking to do things differently.
4. Deepak Chopra
Taking the wisdom of eastern meditation and spirituality, and distilling it into easily digestible pieces of information has been Deepak Chopra's greatest claim to fame.
Many people struggle to understand and properly integrate alternative medicine approaches into their lives because, truthfully, they don't know where to start. Deepak Chopra has made a name for himself as an author, public speaker, and advocate for personal wellness. And through his books, videos, and education materials, he has become one of the best-known and wealthiest figures in alternative medicine all over the world.
Another example of Oprah's influence, Chopra gained an initial public following in 1993 after being interviewed on The Oprah Winfrey show. Then in 1996 he set up the Chopra Center for Wellbeing with neurologist David Simon, now located in Carlsbad, California.
Whether you agree or disagree with Chopra's approach to personal wellness and use of alternative medicine, what he has done is take seemingly complicated eastern practices and make them accessible to the western world--an extremely difficult feat.
5. Tony Robbins
One of the kings of personal branding, Tony Robbins has built off an empire off one very clear mission: knowing yourself.
After a tumultuous childhood, Robbins turned a "chaotic and abusive" home environment into fuel to help others master their own potential. Robbins attributes his lack of a stable father figure in his life to being the motivation behind his willingness to help others gain control over their lives. He began his career promoting seminars for author, motivational speaker, and entrepreneur, Jim Rohn. From there, Robbins promoted his services as a "peak performance coach," despite not having any educational background in psychology.
Today, he regularly gets paid seven figures for one-on-one personal coaching, and his six-day "Date with Destiny" seminar costs $5,000 per person to attend.
But when you hear the name Tony Robbins, the private jets, mansions, and massive wealth he has amassed are not the first things that come to mind (unlike many other wildly successful entrepreneurs and thought leaders, whose wealth precedes them). Robbins has practically become a verb, a type of motivation--"Tony Robbins style." People see his personal improvement tactics and unflinching confidence as a way of life, and it is recognized all over the world.