If you think "entrepreneur" has an evolving definition, just wait until you get into thought leader territory. The definition of a thought leader varies, depending upon who's asked, but one thing is for certain: It's more than being an industry leader and expert. You also have to be able to use your thought leadership status to make a company profitable--whether it's your company or you end up using your background to help other companies grow.
It's a relatively new buzzword that's showing staying power. However, has it become the next rung on the ladder of success for entrepreneurs? I've been trying personally to become a thought leader for years, it doesn't happen overnight! Not everyone can be a successful entrepreneur, and even fewer have what it takes to achieve thought leader status. Just like an astronaut's nickname, you can't give it to yourself. The thought leader title has to be bestowed upon you.
Think you have what it takes? Here are a few signs of great thought leaders:
Those in your industry know your name and have an opinion on your expertise--however, it's generally accepted that you're an expert. This can't be an uber niche industry, either. It needs to be something major like "search" or "mobile development". Ideally, even people outside the industry have heard of you. Think Bill Gates and Matt Cutts for inspiration.
A great thought leader can instantly bolster the reputation and bottom line of any business they get behind. They're often approached to speak at events and there's a laundry list of people wanting them on boards or as advisors, consultants, and backers. You didn't leave popularity competitions behind in high school, but they've certainly changed over the years.
This isn't a requirement, but it will make becoming a thought leader much easier. Even if you have great wisdom to share, it doesn't matter much when your communication skills are subpar. My good friend Syed Balkhi from who grew WPBeginner from a small blog to becoming a thought leader in the online WordPress space said "A great thought leader is a phenomenal speaker and written communicator. Since blogs, social media, and the like are common ways for leaders to engage with their audience, this means your written prowess matches your spoken talents."
You need to "prove" your ability to be called an expert, and that is done through notable achievements. Getting recognition in the form of awards, promotions, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and the like are all stepping stones towards becoming a thought leader. If you don't think they matter, you're wrong. It's how people gauge your importance and expertise (whether it's fair or not).
Very few thought leaders are fresh out of college--and those who are probably have "prodigy" stamped on their forehead. You're going to need to put in the time, hard work, and ladder climbing in order to become a thought leader, and that's for the best. Focus on being the best entrepreneur you can, and thought leadership might naturally follow.
No thought leader woke up one day thinking, "Today's the day I'll be a thought leader." It simply doesn't work that way. Instead, it's a natural progression based on years of work, natural talent, and honed skills.