Over the last 10+ years, I’ve spent many hours writing about, speaking about, and teaching about thought leadership and I’ve noticed that people often confuse building their personal brand with becoming a thought leader. Many believe that if they have a strong personal brand, they are automatically a thought leader.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work like that.

The truth is, you can have a strong personal brand and not be a thought leader and even vice versa. The actions of someone building their personal brand and someone on their journey to becoming a thought leader can overlap, but the impact and the goal are often quite different. Let me explain that difference between two images.

Here is my very simplified image of thought leadership:

One to Many Illustration

Thought leaders are focused on being that ripple in the pond. On the largest scale, they are creating (or joining) a movement — to bring about social, technological, economic, or other systemic change.

On the other hand, here is my very simplified image of personal brand:

Personal Brand Illustration

When we are building our personal brand, we are usually focused on bringing attention to ourselves — our expertise, our organization — and raising our profile. (And there’s nothing wrong with that!) Building one’s personal brand can be a highly effective career-enhancing strategy, it can be useful for bringing customers to your door and it can be personally rewarding to be noticed for what you know. But it doesn’t automatically make you a thought leader.

Here’s my definition of a thought leader:

Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They become the trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas, turn those ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success. Over time, they create a dedicated group of friends, fans, and followers to help them replicate and scale their ideas into sustainable change not just in one company but in an industry, niche or across an entire ecosystem.

The four bolded passages are the key differentiators. First, you can have a strong personal brand and not be an opinion leader — someone who is out front, showing the way forward. Unfortunately, many leaders forget that in their role at the head of a team, organization, or community that often people are looking to them for their opinions, they want to be guided by someone who they perceive as more informed, more engaged, with more access to ‘the room where it happens, to paraphrase Hamilton.

Second, you can have a strong personal brand and not be trusted — we all know folks like that. As the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Report so clearly shows, there is “an epidemic of misinformation and the loss of belief that what our leaders tell us bears any resemblance to the truth.” We can throw up our hands at news like this, or we can see this as a unique opportunity to do something different….to ensure that our personal brand is tied up with traits like accuracy, fairness, independence, and transparency. We can share information and also listen and create honest connections and consistently be of service to those around us.

Third, you can definitely have a strong personal brand and not move and inspire people. Moving and inspiring people takes a certain attention, it requires having a distinct point of view, rather than just sharing a lot of random perspectives or up-voting whatever is the meme of the day. It usually requires a more optimistic perspective, a belief in other people, and in a better future. There is less “here’s what’s wrong” and more “here’s what we can do to fix things.” Indeed, there is generally far less focus on “I” and far more on “We”.

Finally, the most important differentiator is the last one — thought leaders are about replicating and scaling their ideas into sustainable change. They are not so much worried about whether they are personally known as they are focused on scaling their ideas and catalyzing others to take action. Once they have built an initiative, created a new approach or devised a simplified solution, they codify their lessons learned into a blueprint, methodology, or framework that others can follow to replicate what they have achieved.

They might achieve their goal through legislation, regulations, or creating a licensable framework, or developing a new standard or credential. They might gain followers through books, courses, a train the trainer model or by building a large community. They form partnerships, understanding that real scale happens not through one-to-many, but through many-to-many activities. They empower others to carry their ideas forward to their communities focusing on passing the baton to others.

So, what does all this mean to you? No matter where you want to end up, I believe a strong personal brand is a great place to begin. Being top of mind, having a differentiated point of view, managing your reputation, and developing your own, unique ‘one-of-a-kind’ brand personality — are all key to success of whatever kind. But if you’re also on the journey from leader to thought leader, then be sure you are developing a brand reputation as someone who is knowable, likable, and trustable, and most importantly someone who provides value to others. And then think about how you might adopt the mindset and the actions of a thought leader — becoming an opinion leader, building trust, moving and inspiring people, and codifying your ideas so that you can create sustainable change.