To begin with, let's address the term "thought leader."
Is it a buzzword?
Is it more than a little gross?
Are there literally thousands of people on LinkedIn who've somehow made the leap from being an unemployed customer service supervisor to self-branded "thought leader"?
Without a doubt.
(We all know that guy.)
But, if you legitimately have original insight or significant experience in a specific industry, positioning yourself as a thought leader (even if you choose not to call yourself that) can elevate your career, your company, or your startup.
Here are a few things you can do to demonstrate genuine thought leadership, be seen as an expert, and avoid coming off like "that guy" on LinkedIn.
1. Be an original.
You do not demonstrate thought leadership by sharing content created by someone else. And, you won't be considered an expert when you repackage someone else's ideas into a post on the "7 Ways to Be a Leader." You won't become the next Gary Vee by trying to yell even louder and curse even more.
Share what you know, what you've learned, and how you learned it.
And if you don't know anything, wait until you do before you try and become a recognized expert--because if there is nothing unique and original behind all the Gary Vee shares, you are not a thought leader.
2. Be willing to be disliked.
If your insight and expertise are universally beloved, chances are they're so watered down that what you're really doing is dishing out trite nuggets of already shallow motivational speeches. Stop doing that. We get enough of that already. Toby Mac has already cornered that market, and no one wants to live in the cold recesses of Toby Mac's shadow.
True thought leadership should be controversial.
Because true thought leaders are always saying something new. They're disrupting (I promise I am not trying to cram as many buzzwords as possible into one article) whatever field they work in. If disruption is occurring, it means someone is losing. It means someone has just been introduced to new ideas or new ways of thinking, and people can grow defensive when they are forced to rethink the way they've always perceived an issue or problem.
If you're posting content and all you're getting are likes and hearts and your friends telling you how amazing you are, you may be popular, but you are not a thought leader.
On the other hand, if you're posting content and people are calling you an idiot, you may actually be on to something.
(Of course, you may also just be an idiot.)
3. Play the long game.
In 2014 I posted my first blog on LinkedIn. The subject matter was on getting your MBA online. It went viral, with about 25,000 or so views. That post was the first of one hundred and fifty blogs I wrote on LinkedIn before any other publication contacted me. In addition to my day job running my consulting company, today I write about business, politics, and economic development for several national media outlets.
Had I started this part of my career by contacting CNBC to see if they were interested in my thoughts on the role a lack of affordable housing is playing in the declining support for democracy, I would have come across as a better-smelling but less-ambitious Unabomber.
In other words, it takes time and consistency to establish yourself as a genuine thought leader.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that CEOs who are genuine thought leaders end up running innovative, industry-leading companies. Founders who successfully position themselves as thought leaders are better able to attract the attention of investors. Thought leaders who aren't founders or CEOs never have to worry about their next promotion, because they are constantly being recruited.
But before all that can happen, you need to put down the phone, stop retweeting Gary Vee, and start thinking about what it is you have to say that no one has heard before.