I was on a call with a client last week and she asked me something that fired me up. We have been working together for several months and during that time she has advanced from being unknown outside her community of colleagues to finding her voice, honing her niche, identifying her thought leadership topics, creating a strong LinkedIn profile, and sharing content related to the future she envisions. She has also been invited and contributed chapters to two books and has begun one of her own.

Yet, even with all that great progress, she was still thinking that maybe her thought leadership efforts were too much ‘outside her lane’ – as a veteran surgeon and chair of a department of a major medical center. Was it ok, she asked, to be stepping into the spotlight vs. just being one of the team? Was thought leadership the place to be focusing her time vs. her research and seeing patients? Was she ready for this new role and goal after all?

I think she was surprised when I got quite heated in defending my perspective that thought leadership is not outside your lane as a senior leader, it is expanding your lane. I argued that if you don’t take the opportunity to use your voice and platform for good, it is a waste of your talent, knowledge, and expertise. (Okay, I might have gotten a little carried away there — after all, she is working on curing cancer in her day job!)

Reflecting back on the conversation, I am reminded of one of the women I interviewed for my book, Katie Orenstein of the OpEd Project. Katie believes that “thought leadership is like citizenship, and having a voice is like having a vote – having a say in what goes on in the world.” I couldn’t agree more.

“Thought leadership is like citizenship, and having a voice is like having a vote – having a say in what goes on in the world.” – Katie Orenstein, OpEd Project

After all, once you have reached the level of leadership and built the reputation that my client has, you are already in the spotlight, so why not use that position for good – to push forward causes that matter to you? Why not create value for those who are already paying attention to what you say, by sharing what you’ve learned along the way?

Doesn’t it make sense that, after years of concentrating in one particular arena, you would have a deeper and wider viewpoint than others who are just starting out or who do not have your level of expertise and understanding? Isn’t it possible that you could be of service to others…that you could perhaps bring people around to a new way of thinking or a fresh perspective?

Once you have earned significant trust, isn’t it imperative to use that trust – not on behalf of your ego or self-aggrandizement, but on behalf of advancing a deeper understanding of issues, values and even a vision of the future that would be better for all?

What would you say, dear reader? Where do you come down on this?

Thought Leaders Don’t Have a Secret Decoder Ring

As I wrote in Ready to Be a Thought Leader?, I do not believe that thought leaders have any special gene, any inborn talents, or even a secret decoder ring. They exist in every industry, nation, and arena. They are men and women, old and young, and they come from every ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic background.

As I know from long experience, thought leaders are not always confident – they have moments of doubt. They are not always the smartest kid in the room; most will admit that even if they are the “expert” in their community, they still have a lot to learn and they have made (many) mistakes along the way. I know I have.

Thought leaders do not always start out with a clear path, plan, or purpose. They often stumble around, lose their way, and then, somehow, find it again.

When they do find their way, they gain more visibility for the work they are doing. They build more credibility in order to advance their agenda or a big idea. They use their skills and talents – and develop new ones – in order to make an indelible imprint on the world. And they leave a legacy that extends beyond a series of job titles on a resume.

The thing to remember is that thought leadership is not just about becoming known, it is about becoming known for making a difference.

Thought leadership is not just about becoming known, it is about becoming known for making a difference.

The reason I do the work that I do is that I believe we need many more voices, (like those of my client who is a woman of color and one of the first women in her specialty), at the table, many more solutions proposed, and many more people inspired and empowered to build a purposeful life that serves and calls others to action.

Stepping into the role of thought leader should not be a ‘nice to have’, something you get around to when you’re 80, or something you wait for others to tell you you’re now ready to begin. Instead, it should be an imperative. And now is exactly the right time to expand your lane by embarking on your own thought leadership journey. If I can help, feel free to reach out!

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