What Is a Thought Leader Exactly?

I’ve been wondering about this and maybe you have, too, so I’ve decided to crack that nut with the power of my (digital) pen. It’s funny when you think about it — you just know a person is a thought leader, but do you know what it really means? When I asked twitter, someone said the following:

Thought leaders are people who answer questions in a particular industry.

Sorry but this is an expert. I’ll say it again: this is an expert. Now, if you insist that an expert and a thought leader are the same thing, I have to answer with this quote from Inc.:

All Thought Leaders are experts in their industry, but not all experts in their industry are Thought Leaders.

All right? Now let's explore the issue a bit further...

When you Google it,

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.

I’m good with that description. Just as long as you don’t ignore the “innovative ideas” part, because most people do.

When you move down the list of articles that explain it, things get a bit controversial. Forbes comes up with a generic definition:

A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise [...] an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.

But as you go on googling, definitions get braver:

Do something everyone else in your field thinks is dumb, and be right about it.

Like I said, only expertise in your field makes you an expert. To get followers, all you have to do is lead. To get thought followers, you have to come up with new thoughts — thoughts that work and that are worthy to follow.

So I definitely support Mashable’s take, which is where I got the “do something dumb” quote from. Here’s another one:

To put it simply, thought leaders are not only known for radically changing thoughts or ideas about a particular industry, but thriving in it too.

From a psychological PoV,

When you hear “thought leadership”, you might think of the Pied Piper.

This might be the first association, but it’s the wrong one. You see, the piper is using cheap tricks to lure the mice out of their beloved town. But the mice are not thinking! They’re blindly following the piper, and I can tell you for sure — this is not what a thought leader does. I guess any leader can lead the mice into a river, but we’re taking the mice out of the equation.

When you think about your audience, do you think of them as blind? Of course not. Do you want to encourage them to think and succeed in their own way or parrot yours and do whatever you tell them to do?

Think hard about your answer.

Here’s how I see it…

A thought leader must earn your respect. They must come up with new ideas to do something, and have made money off those ideas. And I know the definition of “new” is blurry as hell, but I just mean unique.

You don’t have to come up with the next light-bulb or the next Mac, but you need to take a method or approach and look at it from a new angle. You have to make it your own, so when people hear it, they’ll say: Yeah that’s [your name]’s thing and it worked for their billion companies. :P

You know what I mean.

It’s not *just* about answering questions, it’s not literally about leading people. It’s about showing people how to think and solve their problems by showing them how you did it. A thought leader doesn’t always have a “method” per se, but they always have a “style”, and everything they say matches this style, so it becomes recognizable.

Some examples,

A lot of people dislike Ryan Holiday, but would you call him a thought leader? Of course you would. To his devoted audience, he is exactly that. A lot of marketers strive to replicate his methods and succeed. But I think the ones who take the “idea” of his methods succeed even more.

Personally, I follow Gary Vaynerchuk.

He’s an expert and a thought leader, and I’d follow his thoughts everywhere because they reflect my values (and because he's a little bit silly). My “relationship” with him is based on trust and respect. Without those, he would’ve been the Pied Piper.

In your case, that could be Brad Feld or Richard Branson or whoever. You know who your heroes are. They push you to think, to be more curious, and to strive to be more than you already are. They don’t want you blind. They want you to understand why their methods work.

They create evolutionary and even revolutionary advancements in their fields not just by urging others to be open to new ways of thinking, but when they create a blueprint for people to follow...

In the end, maybe this is the distinction: they simply inspire.


Don’t take my word for it. After all, a thought leader is what you make it.

But please, take a minute to think about it and let me know what your opinion is. I’d love to start a discussion. Thanks.

Violeta Nedkova

Violeta Nedkova is a multipassionate marketer who loves helping people. She talks and writes about marketing with purpose and personality because it's so much better than traditional marketing.