Want to be seen as a leading thinker? Want to be the Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell of your field?
Want to revolutionize entire industries — and business paradigms — like Steve Jobs?
It’s not easy. It takes a lot more than sitting at a computer while the children are nestled all snug in their beds and visions of thought leadership dance in your head.
Some of my clients are visionaries and leaders in their fields. I know what they’ve done to set themselves apart. I’ve seen firsthand their approach, energy, and most important, persistence.
Here are a few principles that thought leaders embrace:
1. Start with show, not tell.
Everyone has ideas. Ideas are cheap. Talk is even cheaper. We listen to leading thinkers because their ideas are validated by success.
Think about it: Would anyone consider Tony Hsieh to be a visionary thinker in customer service and employee engagement if Zappos had not experienced tremendous growth?
Sure, occasionally a Chris Anderson will popularize a concept like the Long Tail, but he had already built a platform at Wired where he could share his ideas. (A visionary without a platform is a tree that falls in the forest and makes no sound.)
When you prove your vision is valid, gaining recognition for visionary thinking is much easier.
2. Fearlessly go against the crowd.
Most of us follow basic business principles. How we apply those principles may be (slightly) different because each of us is unique… but not really.
To be a visionary you must take a very different approach, and that means many people will disagree with your thinking even after you’ve proven you’re right. See pushback as a sign you may really be on to something.
But also make sure you’re prepared to take the heat when others attack — because they will.
3. Be willing to start small.
Cobbling together a platform and building a following is incredibly hard.
The Wall Street Journal won’t take your calls, but trade publications, local papers, radio stations, and moderately influential bloggers may, especially when you have something different to say and a story that proves your point.
In some cases, smaller mainstream media outlets not only don’t mind when you reach out, they want you to reach out, because many are starved for content. Be humble and speak and write for just about anyone who will have you. If nothing else, post on LinkedIn. That’s the only platform you’re guaranteed access to — and the only platform with hundreds of millions of potential readers.
Remember: if you’re only willing to start at the top… you’ll never get off the bottom.
4. Persist when no one seems to listen.
Visionary thinkers not only have great ideas, they can effectively communicate those ideas.
The same goes for you. You must be able to write and speak extremely well. Unless you have the resources to hire a ghostwriter to write articles, books, speeches, etc., it’s all on you.
That’s another reason starting small is important; not only do you get the time you need to refine your message, you also get lots of practice writing and speaking and sharing that message.
And most importantly…
5. Be sure the effort is worth it.
If you’re a consultant or an author, being seen as a thought leader can have a direct payoff. Heightened credibility and increased visibility can create broader opportunities, drive higher fees, and boost revenues.
But in many cases the only boost you will receive is to your ego.
Building a platform and an audience for your ideas is really, really hard. You’ll invest countless hours writing, speaking, promoting, and networking, possibly for very little return.
Take a hard look at the tangible benefits you expect to receive. If you can’t quantify the return, put your time into other activities that will produce a real return.
If it’s just about your ego, you’ll never succeed, and in fact probably shouldn’t, because thought leaders place all the emphasis on their ideas — not on themselves.