Over the last few weeks, I have had conversations with several senior executives who have a lot in common – they are all smart, capable, hard-working, and have a commitment to make the world a better place.
Unfortunately, none of them are thought leaders. They all struggle with different aspects of the thought leadership journey and I hope their experiences will help you move forward on yours.
…You’re Waiting for Perfection
Executive number 1 is a planner and has been spending months mapping out her possible path forward. Now, I am a huge fan of planning, but not if it’s about looking into every future possibility and contingency before the first step is taken, and not if the planning is taking the place of the doing. (Fortunately, she is responding to my coaching to try a few experiments even while we work out the larger strategy.)
It’s too easy to get held back by a sense that there is one right way forward, if we can just find it or by a sense that we have to get it ‘right’. Unfortunately, there is never any certainty when it comes to stepping into the spotlight – it can be downright messy, unexpected, and you may go the wrong way and have to backtrack. And, no matter how much you plan, it never gets any more certain… so you might as well take the first step.
Are you letting a need for certainty stand in your way?
…You’re Focused on Being Famous
Executive number 2 has almost the opposite problem. He is so focused on what it will take to become well-known, have his ideas widely accepted, and gain a large following because of a book or course or TED Talk, that he has almost forgotten that first he has to do the work required to have something to write about, teach to others, or get on a stage and share.
Thought leadership comes about when we have ideas worth repeating and that begins when we have distilled some lessons learned, crafted some best practices, and created a path forward for others to follow. Those steps can only happen when we are a part of something that is making a difference for others — in our community, company, industry or beyond.
If you want to be a Brene Brown, you have to do the hundreds of hours of research on shame and then turn that into lessons and ideas that inspire others. If you want to be a Priya Parker, you have to lead a lot of gatherings and then figure out what differentiates the good from the bad. If you want to be an Avinash Kaushik, you have to start sharing your experiences in web analytics in 2006, and just keep going, week after week. If you want to be a Malala, you have to be able to transform what would normally be a tragedy into a cause.
Are you letting your search for the spotlight overshadow your search for good ideas worth sharing?
…You’re Looking For Permission
When I had lunch with Executive number 3 recently, she shared that she has been leading a significant initiative that is really making a difference in her organization, something I had never heard about at any other organization. Yet, when I recommended that she document the best practices and lessons learned, I was immediately dismissed. Her belief was that her company would never pay for this sort of effort, and would not be open to her spending time on it.
The truth is it doesn’t take much money or time to create an eBook, infographic, video, blog post, or other summary of what’s underway so that others can learn from your experiences. Even better if you enroll others you’ve been working with and make it a group effort – that has the benefit of sharing the work and cutting down on the jitters.
It’s true that many companies do not allocate time or provide any training for people who want to be thought leaders, I wrote about that previously, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get started. After all, these sorts of efforts can be of huge value to you — as you distill the lessons you’ve learned along the way, you reinforce those lessons in your own mind, and documenting these lessons can provided needed attention for important efforts underway and help others at the same time.
Are you waiting for permission or for someone to anoint you?
…You Don’t Toot Your Own Horn
Perhaps most interesting was Executive number 4. In our recent discussion, I learned that years earlier, he had been at the forefront of a huge transformation in his industry. As one of the first to understand what was to come, he had approached his alma mater and worked with them to create a curriculum designed to prepare the next generation of managers for the transformation underway. The curriculum which he developed and later taught became a gold standard and was adopted at a few other prominent schools. When I asked him whether he’d ever claimed credit for his role, or wrote about it in a book, blog or elsewhere, he told me he hadn’t — because he didn’t want to be seen as “self-aggrandizing.”
I can relate that we often see leaders who are all about taking credit that is not their due or who pound their chests for even the most minor accomplishments. But that should not dissuade us from claiming credit for truly important work.
Developing a new curriculum can be one of the best ways to gain widespread adoption for good ideas/fresh thinking, so I do want to give credit for this executive’s success. I can only wonder whether the curriculum would have had an even broader reach if its creator had utilized his bully pulpit to share what was underway. And I wonder what new doors might have opened up for him if he had opened up about what he’d achieved.
Are you failing to take credit or push for wider adoption?
…You Get Lost in the Day To Day
Finally, there is executive number 5, an archetype I see all too often. She is busy…always busy. She regularly adds building her personal brand and becoming a recognized expert to her to do list, but something else always takes priority. Her boss would like her to do more, and she regularly gets invitations to speak or contribute to a blog or podcast because she is in a prominent role in a prominent organization.
What she lacks is not time, or even good ideas. What she lacks is confidence and courage – two of the most essential ingredients of thought leadership. She has forgotten that the leadership journey is not about getting every single item done on our to do list. Instead, it is to have an impact, make a difference, leave a legacy. It is about taking the wisdom we’ve spent years accumulating and sharing it thoughtfully so that others can learn, be inspired, move more quickly on their own journeys forward.
Thought leadership is really about creating a flywheel effect for (positive) change. And it takes all of us to get that wheel started and help it gain momentum.
Are you forgetting the importance of long-term impact?
I hope these examples inspire you to move forward…at least to take one small step this week to advance on your own thought leadership journey. If I can help, be in touch! And share which one of these examples resonates with you (or what I’ve missed) in the comments below.