I once met a guy who called himself a thought leader. That's like saying, "I have thoughts and you don't."
The term "thought leader" is an attribution, a compliment that is earned and given to you, not something you type in a bio that's self-ascribed. A thought leader is "someone who stands above subject-matter expertise and is an authority in his or her field."
But, honestly, I hate the term.
Now I do count myself fortunate to be called a thought leader, because it means that person thinks I'm a go-to expert in our industry. It's humbling, really, when someone else refers to you as a thought leader. Every entrepreneur should strive to attain this type of recognition, because it helps to elevate the brand of a young business.
I decided to start a petition to have people drop "thought leader" from their social media profiles and bios.
I posted this as a simple comment on LinkedIn and it garnered more than 110,000 views, 100-plus comments, and nearly 500 likes from people who both agreed and disagreed with why you should never call yourself a thought leader.
It was a simple thought that just bugged me. Clearly, it also bugged a lot of people. I definitely hit a nerve.
Now, some people said that the term "thought leader" is legitimate, and I agree with them there. My colleague Maria Pergolino pointed out that when people say they are a thought leader they are saying they take the time to help others by not only doing a great job but also making an effort to package it up via blogs, presentations, etc., so other people can learn. That's worth some credit.
Maria also made a valid point: "Marketers shouldn't feel bad for marketing themselves. It's a sign of good marketing."
And I agree. I've seen firsthand at my startup, Terminus, how paving the way to build a movement behind an idea can help grow a company through awareness marketing. I'm just trying to build a great company that challenges the status quo of B2B marketing.
I refuse to call myself a thought leader for those efforts. It's what a good entrepreneur is supposed to do.
Here are three reasons why you should never call yourself a thought leader.
1. The title of "thought leader" is an honor to be earned
"Thought leader" is a term other people use when referring to truly visionary people. They shouldn't use it about themselves. When someone declares him- or herself to be a thought leader, it just sounds so egotistical.
This is the same reason you can't call yourself a subject matter expert (SME), because declaring that you have mastered a topic makes you sound egotistical. There is always more knowledge to be gained on a subject.
2. Calling yourself a thought leader makes you unrelatable
Telling someone you're a thought leader is like telling people you're rich. It usually means you aren't, and it's incredibly gauche.
Real thought leaders don't have to tell people; their actions give them away. It's a nice thing for someone else to call you, but an obnoxious thing to call yourself.
Pat Kelly spoke on "thought leadership" at the annual This Is That Talks:
3. "Thought leader" is becoming an overused term
Along with "thought leader," there are other nicknames that we need to just stop using, such as maven, visionary, guru, rock star, game changer, and the like.
Another really awful nickname is "ninja." Are you really a sales ninja? Because ninjas in ancient Japan were the bad guys who spied on people, committed sabotage, and assassinated people. Being a ninja is not a good thing to be associated with your personal brand, but I'll save that for another article.
Calling yourself an entrepreneur is also being overused. Did you really start your own business, or did you join a company at the right time before it got funded?
The whole point is that if your star is rising to the point that these names come out, then let other people call you these nice things. Focus instead on the problem you're trying to solve, such as growing your business 10X, creating a place where people want to come to work every day, or building a company with unlimited potential.
That's what will make you a true thought leader.