When Simon Sinek walked on stage to deliver his first TEDTalk in 2009, most people didn’t know what to expect.

But over the next 20 minutes, Sinek used nothing more than a marker, a flipboard, and the power of speech to electrify the audience. In under half an hour, he had unleashed the power of “why” on the world.

Since then, Sinek’s “why” thought leadership has inspired millions of business leaders, entrepreneurs, and organization founders across the world. Without question, we revere him as an established thought leader in business.

But how did he get that way? And perhaps more importantly, why should you care what thought leaders like Sinek have to say?

First, let’s tackle a definition…

What is thought leadership?

The popular Thought Leadership Lab (TLL) pins this definition on a somewhat nebulous concept:

Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn 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.

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin of “thought leadership,” its first usage appeared in the late 19th century—attributed to big literary names like Ralph Waldo Emerson and social activists like Henry Ward Beecher.

Today, thought leadership is often used in the context of a specific area of business or society. Simon Sinek focuses primarily on leadership and mission/values in the business realm, for example, while others are celebrated in specific industries, like Steve Jobs was in technology.

What sets these individuals apart from other high-achievers is a desire to move beyond innovation for the sake of their own businesses or brand. They have a keen interest in sharing their visions with others in their industry or niche, with no expectation of monetary gain. They evince a genuine passion for innovation in their fields, and are genuinely intent on improving it with the help of a larger community.

Why is thought leadership important to entrepreneurs?

While innovation is the key to progress in every area of society, it’s at the heart of entrepreneurship. An entrepreneur is not only someone who starts a business, but does so with a new idea that expands the market. They challenge the status quo with new products and services, and they question the norms of business operation to serve higher goals of success—which most often take the form of profits, impact, market proliferation, and legacy.

It’s for this very reason that thought leadership is critical to entrepreneurs. No business owner operates in a vacuum; their products and services call on traditions and models that came before them. And even if they take new models and adapt them for new generations of consumers or technology, they have a starting point—which is always the handiwork of innovators before them.

Some of these revolutionary innovators are also those who make a point to share their vision and mission with whole industries and communities. This thought leadership then inspires new perspectives and innovations for up-and-coming entrepreneurs. They also remind us that while we crave ultimate originality and uniqueness—so no one can compete with who we are or what we produce—complete originality is impossible. As Emerson himself quipped, “All of my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.”

But thought leadership is not only critical in innovating “what”—new products, services, brands, etc. It’s also critical in innovating “why” and “how”—the path that gives a business leader the tools to build something sustainable and long-lasting. No legendary company rested on its laurels after the creation of one astounding product; they were able to continue astounding customers by creating innovative goals, visions, and systems that propelled the innovative “what” for decades.

Where do I find thought leadership in my field/industry?

If you spend any time at all immersed in the news of your industry or community, chances are you already know who your industry’s thought leaders are. These days, their ideas flourish on social media; many of them regularly post on LinkedIn, with hashtags that make their content easy to find. But you can also follow the networks you already have online and in person: Who are you connected to in your field or industry? Who are they following? What are they reading or listening to?

I often make it a practice at industry events or gatherings to meet 3 new people. I don’t make any promises to myself about what they’ll be able to give me or vice-versa; I keep my mind open to all possibilities. After all, connections can benefit you when you least expect it.

But I do always ask this one question: “What authors are you reading these days?” This leads to a conversation about who they follow and admire, and what drew them into these personalities to begin with. I have discovered many thought leaders this way (and many delightful new books to read).

I also recommend reading periodicals specific to your industry or area of interest. If you read an article that you particularly enjoy, track down the author online. Follow them on social media and see what other content they have to offer. In many cases, they will be a bottomless well of wisdom.

Lastly, I recommend perusing Thinkers360.com. It’s a platform designed specifically for thought leaders interested in sharing their ideas with a global audience.

Still, it’s possible in nascent industries to dig deep and come up empty-handed. Some niches just don’t have many (or any) voices to guide innovation and growth. Which leads me to the next question…

What do I need to become a thought leader?

This is tricky; there is no credentialed pathway to thought leadership. This makes for muddy waters, as many people call themselves thought leaders who haven’t really earned the title.

So, before mapping out a path to thought leadership, let’s clarify what sets thought leaders apart from entrepreneurs or business leaders.

1: Thought leaders are charismatic and passionate about their vision

Think about some of the big thought leaders you follow online. There’s likely something about them that draws you in—they’re personable, charismatic, and probably a little entertaining. Undergirding all of these is a palpable passion for thought leadership in their industry; they regularly share their insights without expectation of a sale or reciprocal action. You trust them because they share their ideas openly, articulately, and authentically.

2: Thought leaders are experienced

Any entrepreneur with a couple of years of experience under his/her belt can write an article on their success stories or failures. But that doesn’t make them a thought leader. Because thought leaders share insights on strategy and vision, they need to have experienced many years in the trenches. With this “front line experience,” they can understand the connection between a single action and the strategy that set it in motion.

A green entrepreneur may be able to have some insight in a vary narrow area, but their advice generally can’t be extrapolated to statements about vision or strategy.

3: Thought leaders have vetted their ideas

In a recent conversation I had with copywriter Bob Bly, we chatted about the proliferation of “anchor books.” That is, books written by coaches and speakers that are designed to demonstrate expertise in a particular area. Unfortunately, many of these “anchor books” are nothing more than saddle-stitched pamphlets that aren’t edited and are hastily produced.

Thought leaders, however, have taken the time to consider their vision and strategies based on years of experience, and have spent countless hours structuring these for a book (or multiple books). They often share these manuscripts with experienced colleagues or other thought leaders for feedback, and enlist the help of a professional editor to review the book before it’s published.

Do you need a published book to be a thought leader? No. But the process of publishing a book forces you to organize your thoughts so that they are clear, digestible, and actionable. In other words, thought leaders vet their ideas before they share them with the world.

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So what are your first steps to thought leadership? Ask yourself a few questions:

  1. How much experience do I have in my field/industry? Is it enough to build strategies, visions, and insights that can be supported by personal engagement in the field?
  2. How passionate am I about moving my field or industry forward? Am I more interested in making an impact/building profits with my business?
  3. Am I comfortable producing regularly content around my ideas? Am I okay sharing those ideas without compensation?
  4. Do I see the need for my thought leadership in my area of interest/expertise, or are there already too many voices in the mix?
  5. Am I comfortable not worrying about 100% originality, and spending more energy on adapting existing models and systems to improve my field/industry?
  6. Am I ready to be 100% authentic and sometimes vulnerable for the sake of sharing valuable ideas?
  7. Can I handle dissenters and trolls easily while also listening to genuine feedback from followers?

I call this the pre-interview for thought leadership. If you’re not able to answer these questions in the affirmative—or if you struggle to answer them at all—thought leadership is not for you. Not yet, anyway.

But if you passed the pre-interview with flying colors, then I recommend doing some additional research on best media for sharing your thought leadership with the world. Each industry or field has its own favorite medium, so find it. (There are many articles available on Entrepreneur.com, Inc.com, and Quora—all good places to start.)

Then, write, write, write—and listen, listen, listen. A thought leader, however experienced, is never done learning. So as you share your insight with the world, keep your eyes and ears open to your increasingly engaged audience. Remember, it takes a village; thought leadership is not about you.

Build a routine around your thought leadership, and grow your following…

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Jeff Steen

Jeff Steen is the Associate Editor of Early to Rise. Previously, he worked in food and hospitality journalism, but is currently focused on bringing unique, insightful content to the ETR world.

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