What is a Thought Leader? What does a Thought Leader do?

Thought leadership can mean becoming influential, shaping an industry, or simply leading from where you are — regardless of your followers or popularity.
April 17, 2021

What is a Thought Leader? What does a Thought Leader do?

What, exactly, is a thought leader? Who is considered a thought leader today, and how does somebody become one?

Many people are asking who and what qualifies as a thought leader today, including what their purpose is, and how they can become one. As entrepreneurship is on the rise, more people are seeking information about how to become someone influential or how to be someone who can shape an industry or school of thought.

Despite becoming a popularly discussed idea these days, the topic of thought leadership is frequently lacking explanation or perspective other than the dictionary definition.

Many people aren’t sure what qualities they might need to develop to become someone who might have such a great impact on the world.

In this post, I’ll share my understanding of what it means to be a thought leader, based on a roundup of research and definitions from reputable, attributed sources across the web.

My name is Dave Ursillo and I am an author, a creativity and leadership coach, and a lifelong student of what it means to be a leader. I come from a background in politics and public service, including working for state elected officials in my home state of Rhode Island and interning at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in 2008.

Today, I am also a founding member of the Forbes Coaches Council (FCC).

I also have special interest in exploring these topics and their definitions because my work revolves around helping rising thought leaders, change-makers, and creative entrepreneurs claim their callings by activating their personal leadership.

What is a thought leader?

The Oxford Dictionary defines “thought leader” as “one whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential,” but this definition neglects to consider the role of thought leaders throughout many levels of society.

Being a thought leader is not reserved for those who are the most elite, upper-echelon of earners, influencers, or most popular figures in society; thought leadership is modeled, demonstrated, and shared by many figures in our society who change the ways that people think, feel, and believe.

A thought leader is anyone whose thoughts (beliefs, views, ideas, perspectives, advocacy, opinions, and so on) are proving to lead others to change their perspectives, viewpoints, and ideas, especially in innovative, paradigm-shifting, and change-making ways.

When conventional thoughts or beliefs prove outdated or lacking, a thought leader steps in to show the way forward.

By definition, a thought leader’s beliefs and views are innovative, paradigm-shifting, or change the ways that people conventionally think of certain topics or ideas.

Here are a few more definitions and interpretations of what thought leadership means.

Definition 1: Thought Leaders Lead By Example & Teach What They Know

Denise Brosseau at The Thought Leadership Lab defines “thought leaders” as “…the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise.”

She adds that thought leaders are those who “become the trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success.”

Brosseau’s definition reminds us that thought leaders aren’t just “social media influencers” with big mouths or who broadcast their beliefs repeatedly.

True thought leaders are leaders by example.

Thought leaders, by this definition, might also teach what they know and have learned, or guide others to do what they’ve done.

Definition 2: Thought Leaders Act First, and Speak Second

Further debunking the myth that a thought leader is a “social media influencer” who just broadcasts their ideas repeatedly, the Influencer Marketing Hub defines thought leadership by prioritizing action over words.

They write, “To be a thought leader, you have to act – you have to make an impact in your field, and engage with others, encouraging them to learn from your advancements in your field.”

In other words, a thought leader is more defined by action, deeds, and proving that their ideas are effective in practice.

A thought leader is not just a theorist or philosopher, but a practitioner of their beliefs and someone who proves them — or, disproves them, if the evidence suggests that! — through action in the real world, their industry, or their field.

Ultimately, thought leaders help others, guide and mentor people, and exist in roles of service and assisting other people.

Definition 3: Thought Leaders in Business Answer Their Customers’ Questions

Marketing Insider Group takes a marketing-related definition of thought leadership by reminding us that thought leaders aren’t just industry movers and shakers, but further, business people and professionals whose work helps answer the most pressing and urgent questions that customers and clients are struggling to answer.

They write, “Thought Leadership means you provide the best and deepest answers, to your customers’ biggest questions, in the formats your audience likes to consume.”

Thought leadership in business involves being highly engaged with customers and clients, taking a hands-on role in understanding the needs of their consumer base, and actively conversing with customers to deeply understand their pain points, struggles, discomfort, and the questions they are struggling to answer.

From a content-creation perspective, thought leadership embodies “… a type of content marketing where you tap into the talent, experience, and passion inside your business, or from your community, to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience on a particular topic.”

Thought leaders don’t just have to be altruistic renunciants, they can also be professionals and business people who are growing businesses and serving their clients exceptionally well.

“How do I become a thought leader?”

The short answer is that it takes a lot of work, perseverance, and dedication: thought leaders are highly committed and prove their thought leadership through exceptional creativity, service-mindedness, voice, presence, and more.

Thought leaders aren’t self-anointed, but earn the title through a long and unrelenting commitment to living their leadership from the inside, out.

And yet, there are absolutely steps that you can take to develop your thought leadership qualities — and to keep yourself squarely on a path of activating your thought leadership, day after day.

The primary needs of a thought leader, in my opinion, include:

  1. Self-knowledge practices like journaling, reflection, continual personal learning and growth, acts of self-care, and other forms of supports to keep you continually learning and understanding the truth of who you are
  2. A trusted community of peers, colleagues, and companions to share your journey of change-making with and, as well, to learn from and contribute to the growth of, over time
  3. A dedicated outlet of self-expression where your ideas, beliefs, teachings, lessons, and ideas can be shared, “proven” to work, or make the world a better place “out loud”

These core principles are built into my thought leadership collective, Claim Your Calling, through which I work with rising thought leaders like creative entrepreneurs, aspiring authors, podcasters and YouTubers, poets and yoga teachers, coaches and therapists, and professionals navigating career or personal transitions.

Here is a more specific breakdown of how you might become a thought leader:

Develop yourself as a person through personal growth and self-reflection practices and pursuits, like journaling.

Consider working with a coach, hiring a therapist, and getting support from others to grow past your “blind spots,” traumas, self-limiting beliefs, or imposter syndrome.

Routinely practice using your voice and taking ownership of what you believe, out loud.

Write, publish, and share your ideas, stories, and other important lessons from which others may learn.

Consider starting a blog, podcast, YouTube channel, or using another platform through which you can establish your core beliefs and begin teaching them to others.

Keep a two-way conversation with readers, subscribers, viewers, or listeners so that you can keep learning and growing, and also validating (or evolving) your ideas.

Build a network of other influencers and individuals in your field to learn from them, but also, to share your value with them. Think holistically and be generous: don’t just look to “get something” from others who seem to “have more” than you.

Don’t try to do it all on your own. Help spread other thought leaders’ ideas that you believe in, or that have worked for you, to help create sustainable change.

Build your credibility over the long term by consistently putting your voice to your beliefs, ideas, and change-making perspectives.

Focus on educating others, providing value, and being generous: this is about leading by example and wanting to make the world a better place, after all!

What is thought leadership, to you?

Sign up for my newsletter, Chronicles of a Self-Storied Life, which explores what it means to begin your leadership journey from within, even if you have no followers to “validate” or “prove” that you’re a “real leader” yet.

Leadership is always activated from within, first.

Ultimately, thought leadership may sound like a very egoic or plaudit-worthy title, but it really comes down to wanting to help other people and make the world a better place — even if it just starts with you being the best version of yourself that you can be, or improving the small corner of the earth around you.

Lead without followers, live from within.