Where you've been, what you've done, how you've contributed - there are a number of paths to becoming a thought leader (with the notable exception of calling yourself one).

For example, I love scotch. I could write this article all about the stuff--my favorite labels, the flavor differences between regions of origin or the not so subtle impact a barrel makes. I could ramble on about personal scotch-related anecdotes and plenty more. 

But what if I were to try and leverage my scotch expertise to write about vodka, a drink I don't particularly enjoy and know much less about? Because I wouldn't be coming from a place of experience, I would also run the risk of simply creating noise and frankly, making it harder for others to find valuable insights.

That's the main issue I take with some of today's thought leaders. The web and social media have provided a pulpit where anyone--and I mean anyone--can step up to an open microphone with the goal of building a personal brand. The term thought leader is supposed to represent genuine expertise. Yet, we too often see the term self-applied extremely liberally which hurts anyone who has genuinely earned the title.

At the core of the debate seems to be the notion of competency versus mastery. Competency is not the requirement for thought leadership, mastery is.

With this issue in mind, I presented a question to my own network of colleagues. That question was simple, "WTF makes a Thought Leader?" Is it a matter of getting your hands dirty in the field for years until you reach an unpublished qualification quotient? Or can one relentlessly study their way to expertise without devoting their life's practice to it? 

Their responses may not lead us to a nailed-down definition of the term, but I think they get us closer to recognizing a true thought leader.

Here are the top themes that emerged:

1. Deep expertise

Is it enough for an individual in a particular field to just offer best practices, or also next practices? A true thought leader understands the importance of striking a balance between what's already known and what hasn't been thought of yet. Thought leaders must establish trust, which can only come from experience.

On top of that, followers want to know how the past and present influences the future. Each industry has its own metrics for what defines a best practice, and thought leaders who demonstrate their deep and narrow understanding of a particular topic will appear more genuine. 

2. Action Oriented  

These days, it's not enough to just have the thought. You have to actually lead! You can be an expert in any range of industries, but what actions are being taken to push your ideas forward? If you truly have innovative ideas on how to take your personal experience and turn it into something better for the next generation, then you need to be physically leading the charge as well as vocally.

3. Eager Audience 

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one heard it fall, did it make a noise? What good is being an expert if all that knowledge stays trapped within you? Yes, qualifications are important and yes, experience matters -- but lots of people have both. How effectively you communicate will ultimately determine how good of a leader you are.

There is no magical formula for a term that is constantly evolving and shifting in the eyes of the beholder. Additionally, sometimes thought leaders emerge just because an audience says they do. Just ask Kim Kardashian. 

In closing, next time you find yourself contemplating the true meaning of thought leadership, consider what my friend Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group, has to say: "The label of "Thought Leader" is not one you can give yourself. Leaders have to earn that distinction through persistence and by constantly sharing solutions to real customer problems. Thought Leadership is not about being unique or smart or clever but about being uniquely valuable. And it's never something to put on your LinkedIn profile."

Amen, brother.