All Thought Leaders are experts in their industry, but not all experts in their industry are Thought Leaders. It's a title reserved for only the most elite, and there's no guaranteed path to get there. Much like getting a nickname as an Astronaut, it's something you have to earn, and it's something that can only be bestowed upon you from others, much like a Philosopher. Becoming a Thought Leader should never be an end goal, but the common best practices to get there should be revered by all.
Think Thought Leadership is in your future? See if you're following the golden rules and find out. Who knows, you might be the next go-to guru in your field and even make a name for yourself beyond your industry.
A Thought Leader's goal is never to show off, to confuse with industry jargon or to leave anyone in the dust. They promote intelligent discourse by bringing issues to life, fostering conversations and helping to educate everyone from fellow executives to the consumer. This is much tougher than it sounds and requires a knack for reading the audience and acting accordingly. A Thought Leader can explain in layman's terms with ease.
How will you know if you're an industry expert or simply have the same (vast) amount of knowledge as everyone else in your field? You'll know--you'll probably have at least a decade of experience in the field, you'll have a plethora of published articles/interviews under your belt in reputable industry outlets, and you'll often be asked to speak at relevant conferences. I've been working a lot on this for my current startup.
It's not enough to just be an expert. You will bring a quantifiable value to any business you're linked with at any time, and (if necessary) you can point to analytics that back it up. It's relatively easy to wax poetic about the future of search engine optimization or mobile readiness. It's quite another to get paid handsomely, and then let those profits trickle into your business(es) of choice.
There are certainly exceptions, but for the most part, Thought Leaders are master communicators. They can draw in an audience with their speeches, their blogs, or their savvy tweets. The good news is that this is one skill set everyone can actively improve upon. Get a speech coach, join Toastmasters, or take a blogging class. Here's the deal: Thought Leaders love to communicate, anytime, anyplace. Learn to do it well.
There's not a Thought Leader out there who doesn't genuinely love what he does, and adore his industry. They will keep doing what they do regardless of status, pay level, or praise. If you're in an industry you don't love, you can be successful--but you'll never be a Thought Leader. The old advice "do what you love" is a given for Thought Leaders. What else would they do?
More information, more tech advancements, more education. More, more, more is the mantra of Thought Leaders, and few of them will ever fully retire. They're also natural-born teachers and have a gift for spreading their excitement beyond the industry walls. Their energy is infectious. If you're hungry for more in your industry, you're on the right path.
Unfortunately, "Thought Leadership" is a title many are trying to bestow upon themselves when they haven't yet earned it. Don't worry. The real Thought Leaders will always rise to the top.