10 WAYS TO (REALLY) MAKE A DIFFERENCE AS A THOUGHT LEADER

In April 2016, Pat Kelly memorialized the ultimate parody of the concept of thought leadership. I encourage you to take 4 minutes right now to watch his talk which has been viewed more than 2 million times (at least 5 of them by me!).

In it, he captures what for me is the ultimate fear that most of us have as we set out on our thought leadership journey. Do we have anything to say? Will we spend more time trying to look important instead of actually being of consequence? Are we just getting up on stage (or writing a blog, or developing a video) as a form of self-promotion and self-congratulations versus actually moving the world forward? Can we really make a difference at all? Reflecting on these questions, it came to me that the only antidote to these very real doubts and fears and the only way to triumph over the potential for ridicule is to actually make sure that you are indeed making a difference – not just for you and your career but for the cause you care about. So, how do you do that anyway? Here are 10 ideas to get you started. Hopefully, you’ll find a few that lead you in the right direction.

1. change your attitude

I can often tell in just a few minutes of conversation whether a leader has the potential to be a thought leader. I don’t mean that they have some specific skill set or background or a Wonder Woman/Superman cape. It almost always comes down to their attitude. Aspiring thought leaders are focused on making change – changing people’s beliefs, behaviors, the way things have always been done. They are willing to take a stand for or on behalf of big ideas, causes, groups of people, even the planet. When they get on stage, their focus is on gaining traction for the new rather than whether they have on the right blazer or hold their hands in the right position.

Getting into action. Step one is to distill the answers to these questions: What do you stand for? On whose behalf are you working?

2. improve your argumentation skills

According to the dictionary, argumentation is the “action or process of reasoning systematically in support of an idea, action, or theory.” It is related to civil debate, dialogue, conversation, and persuasion. I believe that thought leaders must be adept at holding their own in dialogue and debate, able to support their perspective and point of view against doubters and deniers. This requires that we start with a deep understanding of and even empathy towards the other’s point of view. After all, there is very little likelihood that someone is going to come around to your point of view if we don’t begin to understand where they are and what they believe today.

Getting into action. Step two is to honestly assess: Why don’t people agree with me? Why don’t people see the world the way I do?

3. step out of your silo

As a thought leader in one particular niche or arena, it is easy to get tied up in the notion that our followers come to us for our expertise in that niche and that we better stay focused there in order to make a difference. But the truth is that the best ideas often come from outside of our silo and our value-add is that we are willing to look for new perspectives, systems, frameworks, and processes that have never been tried before in our arena, even though they’ve added value somewhere else. One of my first clients, Van Ton-Quinlivan, took the framework for her award-winning PowerPathway Program from the biotech industry to the utility industry.

Getting into action. Step three is to look for fresh perspectives by asking: What other industry, community, field, or arena may have faced a similar situation to what I’m addressing today? Where might I gain a new understanding or approach – by reading, watching, or talking to someone?

4. step back from the future

As thought leaders, we are often working to bring about a big change in the world and it can be hard to imagine what steps to take today to bring that about. The best technique I’ve found that helps overcome any blocks we might have is what I call “Step Back from the Future” and I actually learned it 15 years ago in a career workshop.

Take a large piece of paper (flip chart paper works great) and at the top of the page write the future that you are working towards in 5, 10, or more years. (See my example below) You can use words or an image that inspires you. For me, that would be a world where thousands or even millions more people are empowered to be thought leaders.

Then, imagine you are standing in that future, where everything you’ve envisioned has come to pass, and you are looking back to today and ask yourself, What would have had to have happened to make that future possible? Then, write down three separate paths that would have gotten you to where you’re standing. The trick is to draw the paths from the future back to today and imagine what would have happened just before that moment and just before that, all the way back to today.

It can feel a little odd to do things backward in this way, but numerous studies in cognitive psychology show that when we ask the question ‘what should I do?’ we are not given a frame of reference for comparison and we may become frozen and unable to choose. Instead, when we ask the question, ‘what will have had to have happened?’ to get to the future I want we generate more fanciful, richly detailed, and even more exciting descriptions because it is easier to understand and describe a future event from the past tense over a possible future event, even if neither has occurred.

When we set our mind to it, we can often imagine several sequences of processes that can be taken to generate that future. Thinking of the future as already completed enables us to make more effective decisions by reducing the total set of possible outcomes that must be considered before a suitable plan is selected.

Getting into action. Step four is to take a big piece of paper and complete the Step Back From the Future exercise. Hang this document in a prominent place in your office to inspire you and help you remember that there are many different paths to get to the future you envision. When you get stopped on one path, you can jump over to another, or pursue more than one simultaneously.

5. study the consequences

One of my clients, Lisa Kay Solomon, is a longtime practitioner in the arena of design thinking and learning. She is committed to preparing leaders for the future by helping them visualize the possibilities ahead so they don’t get caught unawares. (Learn more here and here.) One thing she recommends is that we look at the trends in our industry and really take the time to think through the possible first, second, and even third-order consequences of those trends. (See image below) She recommends we look at the utopian future – what would happen if things went the way we want, as well as the dystopian future – what would happen if things went another, less positive, direction. This Futures Wheel exercise can not only prepare us for the future; it can also help us prepare our followers for what might be ahead.

For example, one of the trends I think about a lot is the global breakdown in trust. (I even did a TEDx Talk about it in 2017.) For thought leaders, this trend is both positive – as people lose trust in institutions, they may gain trust in individuals who can prove they are adding value and are trustworthy. But the trend is also negative – as people lose trust in the information they find online, it becomes increasingly difficult for individual thought leaders to break through and differentiate themselves and gain a following. These are both first-order consequences as they are directly possible today.

A second-order consequence might be that large social media platforms may go away entirely, and individual thought leaders will have to work all the harder to convene and communicate with their followers. This is definitely a dystopian view of the world from my perspective, (although I grant that others might think this is a utopian future). In order to prepare for it, I recommend that thought leaders keep their own email list to connect directly with their community of followers rather than rely on these external platforms.

Getting into action. Step five is to choose one or more trends in your field, community, or arena and look at the first and second-order consequences as those trends play out in the utopian and dystopian futures. Then, think about how you might prepare your followers accordingly. Extra credit if you can go all the way to the third-order consequences.

The Futures Wheel from Mind Tools.

6. determine your role

Thought leaders come in all flavors — different ages, experience levels, and backgrounds. Fortunately, they also can play different roles. Not everyone is ready to write a book or stand on the TED stage. A few years ago, my friend Robin Chase, founder of ZipCar, shared an office with a city planner and she regularly heard him talking about the concept of ‘highest and best use’. When she inquired what that meant, he told her that city planners think about every piece of property in a city based on what is its highest and best use – for example, you don’t put the city dump in the center of the main town square. That’s where you put the city hall or the library. Similarly, we all need to think about what role we can play to assure we are living to our highest and best use as leaders and thought leaders.

Some people are eager to take the role of the leader of a cause, while others prefer to foster and encourage others to step forward as thought leaders. Some enjoy building a following — bringing people together into a community, while others enjoy serving as the conveners of their community, creating a setting for best practice sharing. Others love to ideate and can be counted on to set the vision and the north star by which others will guide their work. Some are great at messaging, while others enjoy serving as a spokesperson for the cause, spreading that message widely. And some have the expertise to codify the lessons learned, distilling this learning into frameworks and blueprints that show the way for others. In the beginning, we may need to play all of these roles in turn, but over time to truly scale your ideas, deciding which role you will play and then identifying others to fill in the team will make everyone more successful.

Getting into action. Step six may feel like a luxury when you’re starting out, but over time you want to think through what role you will play and hone your skills in that arena.

7. gather the impact stories

Spend the time needed to document and collect the stories that can inspire and inform others who want to engage with you and your work. This might include distilling your personal story or telling the story of your customers (or clients, patients, students, employees). Think about the success stories — who has tried your methodology, participated in your programs, or learned from your guiding principles? The more you can make these stories real, with true-to-life details, the better, but they also need to be short and clear.

My mentor, Sam Horn, CEO of the Intrigue Agency, developed a very useful 70-10-10-10 framework (available in her book IDEApreneur) for crafting these stories. Start off with the story itself, told in an Anecdote model which puts us in the scene and engages us with a real-life example. That is the 70%. Then, distill the ‘Aha moment’ from that anecdote – what’s the universal lesson that others can take away, preferably something original or communicated in a unique way. That is the first 10%. Next is the Ask, which connects the story to the reader/listener by helping them answer questions such as, “have you ever experienced something similar?” or “how might this apply to your situation?”. The more we can generalize the story and the lesson for our audience the better. This is the second 10%. Finally, we want to help people apply what we’ve learned in their own setting. This might include a set of action steps, a set of questions they can ask themselves, or three things to consider or say in a particular setting. This is the final 10%.

Getting into action. Step seven requires you to share your journey in a way that engages people and encourages them to identify with you. Use the 70-10-10-10 model to help others connect with the work you have underway.

8. amplify others

So often, as thought leaders, we get caught up in our own messages and methodologies and we tend to forget that one of the roles we can play for our community is to curate and amplify the best ideas of others. You might create a reading list for newbies, develop a curated set of helpful resources (as I have done on my site), invite someone you admire to write a post for your blog, interview a well-known expert in front of an audience, or share quotes from speakers you hear at events you attend. Recently, I encouraged a budding thought leader in the diversity and inclusion space to share her list of the best organizations to join in the Bay Area for women of color. She quickly produced a top-quality list of not just organizations but events and awards that I recommended she share widely.

Getting into action. Step eight invites you to look around you for the experts, resources, organizations, and websites you rely on in your field, and share that wisdom with your community. Who are the thought leaders you read regularly? What sites do you visit? What books are the very best in your space? Who said something that needs to be shared widely?

9. leverage the trends

One of the organizations I rely on for great tools and templates is The Grove in San Francisco. One of my favorites is their graphical Context Map (see below) that helps us to understand the forces at work in our world from a variety of perspectives. After all, we can move more quickly when we can ride the trends and when we deeply understand the world in which we are operating.

Getting into action. This sort of exercise is much more fun with a group of people all working together. To implement step eight, order a context map in wall-size from the Grove and invite four or so other folks to join you for an hour to complete it. Use post-it notes so you can move items around until everyone agrees that you’ve developed a good picture of the factors that are impacting you. Feel free to change the categories if they don’t match your operating environment.

10. empower (and be empowered by) the next generation

It is never too early to begin thinking about who can pick up your work and carry it forward and what they might need to make that happen. I know this one can be challenging as many of us get pretty focused on developing our own thought leadership ideas and putting them out in the world. But surrounding yourself with others who are interested in your topic can be hugely rewarding — especially if you understand that learning is a two-way street.

Just as you are disseminating your learning and experience, remember to be open to the reflections and experiences of those around you. They may not have lived through what you have, but often they have a new take on things, can see a different path forward, and bring their own fresh ideas that can strengthen and enhance yours. This is easiest if you choose to go into the classroom and teach — if you leave yourself open to your student’s input, you’ll not only get a lot of new perspectives, but you’ll likely reconnect with your own material in a new way.

Getting into action. To implement step ten, look around you. Is there anyone that might be willing and interested in learning from your expertise? How might you on-board them to understand your approach, while still protecting your intellectual property? What can you learn from them?

share your thoughts

I welcome you to share your own ideas for how you make a difference as a thought leader. I’ll happily update this post with your suggestions or if you wish, you can write your own post for my site.  Just get in touch and we’ll discuss.

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