What Is A Thought Leader

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably why so few engage in it.”
–Henry Ford

Let’s reclaim the term “thought leader.”


Somehow, it’s picked up a rather shady reputation.


While Wikipedia claims that Henry Ward Beecher was described as “one of the great thought-leaders in America” in an 1887 reference, the most modern definition comes from the late Joel Kurtzman.  He described thought leaders as “people who possess a distinctively original idea, a unique point of view, or an unprecedented insight into their industry.”  Although not stated outright, the unspoken idea was that you had this title bestowed on you by someone else.  You didn’t get to call yourself a thought leader.


At some point in the last few years, perhaps with the rise of social media and an increased focus on “positioning” yourself in the market, savvy entrepreneurs started giving themselves that title.  But as my mom always told me, “If you don’t toot your own horn, no one else will do it for you.”  (Thanks, Mom!)


Kurtzman’s definition doesn’t go far enough.  Yes, originality and innovation are key requirements for a thought leader.  But that’s only part of the equation.  A thought leader needs to be able to motivate action, build a community and have an impact on that community.


Here’s another way to look at thought leaders:


Inner Drive — A thought leader needs to be Curious, Passionate, Persistent and Introspective.  These inner qualities will fuel your dedication to your area of expertise and help you remain intensely focused on what the current situation is and how it should be changed.


Outer Focus — The Inner Drive will be expressed by outward actions.  Thought leaders must be Innovative, Inspirational, Influential and Disruptive.  You must be able to lead and persuade.


Result — The best thought leaders build a Community and have Impact.  A thought leader must be able to engage with an audience and prompt that audience to action in order to effect change.