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What is Thought Leadership, and Why Should You Pursue It?

Updated: Jun 6

As the business and nonprofit sectors continue to evolve, people’s expectations also change. Consumers and stakeholders withhold trust until they know an organization provides the most effective products or services. They want to know they are getting the best possible return on their investment.


What’s more, in today’s environment, customers and stakeholders carve out a far more independent role in the search for products and services. Instead of waiting for you to reach out to them, they use the internet to research their problems and find potential solutions.


Remember that a tidal wave of information inundates today’s customers and stakeholders. Through Google and social media apps, they are flooded with claims and counterclaims, much of it useless and irrelevant. Thus, information is no longer “power.” Knowing what to absorb and what to reject—therein lies the real power.


As a result, people look for organizations they feel they can trust. In fact, research reveals that trust is often the “make or break” factor in the relationship between a buyer and a seller. So, how can you and your organization build the trust necessary for your customers or constituents to commit?


One of the most significant ways to build that trust is for the organization’s leader—CEO, President, or Executive Director—to become a thought leader in their given sector. A thought leader is somebody who becomes a recognized expert in a given industry and thus can speak to a broad audience to educate them and add value to their lives.


It sounds like a no-brainer, right? You would think so. However, sadly, many leaders forego the opportunity because they consider it organizationally ineffective, personally unattainable, or unattractively self-promotional.


Yet, each of these objections misses the mark. Thought leadership can be highly effective in moving your business or nonprofit to the next level. It is an attainable goal, even for modest leaders at the helm of small organizations. And it is an honorable aspiration that doesn’t entail shameless self-promotion.

Thought leadership is a highly effective tool for moving the organizational needle.

First, thought leadership is highly effective in “moving the needle.” When you become recognized as a thought leader in your industry, your organization automatically expands its footprint. People will begin to see you—and, by extension, your organization—as a reliable reference. They will look to you for answers to their questions. In other words, your followers become warm leads who more easily convert into buyers.


As your profile is raised, things become easier for your staff and employees. Your team gains confidence. In the business sector, you’ll see an increase in sales. In the nonprofit realm, you’ll see a surge in recruitment and donor development. In the college sector, you’ll see a brisk uptick in enrollments. After all, your thought leadership has lent credibility to the organization, resulting in more warm leads ready to commit.

Thought leadership is an attainable goal, even in our noisy world.

Yet, despite the proven value of thought leadership for businesses and other organizations, many leaders and executives consider “thought leadership” an elusive goal. Given our noisy marketplace, it seems a long shot that they’ll ever get noticed. So, it seems a poor investment of a leader’s precious time.


True, not everyone can become a thought leader. Some leaders aren’t cut out for it. But if you’re interested and willing to work smart to achieve it, you’ll become a thought leader in some form or fashion. The process is simple and reliable but not instantaneous or effortless.


If you’ve founded a business or been hired to lead an organization, you’re already a leader in that industry and have established a general knowledge base. To become a thought leader in that industry, you focus on a specific topic—or several related topics—and develop specific expertise. Out of that expertise, you create and offer content through your social media, subscription database, podcasts, and other outlets.


You will become a thought leader as you follow this simple and reliable journey—from developing expertise to publishing content. How broad of an audience you’ll reach is yet to be seen. At a minimum, your audience will include staff, customers, email subscribers, and social media followers. As time goes on, however, your thought leadership footprint will likely expand with each of those publics, and sometimes exponentially.

Thought leadership is an honorable ambition that serves others and humanizes your brand.

Many leaders, especially those at the helm of faith-based organizations, are wary of any aspiration to thought leadership. And for good reason. Too often, the egocentric self-promoters hog the microphone and me-monkey their way into the public imagination as “thought leaders.”


But that’s precisely why you should aspire to thought leadership. By becoming an others-oriented thought leader, you can move your organization to center stage, take the microphone, and exercise a better influence. 


After all, the best forms of thought leadership are cultivated out of a desire to serve others. Drawing upon your expertise and experience, you provide value to the lives of your peers, staff, customers, and constituents. What’s more, you humanize your brand by showcasing the face behind an organization they can trust.


Take the time to cultivate your role as a thought leader, and you’ll soon reap the benefits.


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