How You Become a Thought Leader


Reading time: 9 minutes 39 seconds

In 1994, Joel Kurtzman, who was the editor-in-chief of the magazine Strategy & Business, coined the term Thought Leader. He used it to refer to those special individuals who made a huge impact in their industries through their innovative insights. Nowadays, the term “Thought Leader” covers a broad spectrum of experts who provide ideas that help others to improve their lives or succeed in business.

Platforms such as TED have catapulted academics and business leaders into the limelight. They offer their philosophy and take on all sorts of topics.

At the same time, we live in a world inundated with so many influencers telling us how to ‘live our best life’. Wherever you go on social media you will find people promising you more money, more dates, happier relationships, a healthier life, and six-pack abs.

The self-help industry is booming and such a concept as a ‘thought leader’ has become the ultimate career move for many. You don’t need a qualification or even experience. You just need to master the marketing of your brand.

Yet in such a world, if we want to genuinely help people through our expertise,

How do we stand out in a world full of all sorts of people who are promising what we offer?

What are the keys to being successful as a thought leader?

These are questions I’ve been pondering for years.

I have been working with people in this space for more than 25 years now. In 2020, I started the Thought Leaders Mentorship to mentor experts who want to grow and scale their expert businesses. (If you want to read more go here)

I believe that there is a lot of noise out there in the area of personal and professional change. There’s a lot of fluff and bullshit and empty promises and hype without grounding.

My goal with this mentorship is to even the playing field. I want to help experts who have spent years learning how to change lives to stand out in this crowded marketplace.

With this in mind, let’s look at some of the keys that can make you stand out as a thought leader. We can begin where thought leadership started.

The History of the Thought Leader

For thousands of years, we have looked to learned men and women to inform us as to how to best live our lives. One of the earliest and most well-known stories ‘The Iliad’ by Homer offers us timeless wisdom.

Stoicism and ancient philosophy explored ideas such as what comprised a ‘good life’ and how to become happier and live better. We had texts such as the Analects on the teachings of Confucius. We had Plato’s Republic which explores the wisdom of Socrates through the dialogues. Then, it was great books such as Poetics and Rhetoric by Aristotle and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

Religious figures enlightened us not only to how the world worked but also to what we should do to better our fortunes. We had the Bible and the Koran, for example. Science came along and provided a new roadmap for success. Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci are two noticeable figures who became leaders in how we think about the world.

Then, in the 19th century, books like Self-Help by Samuel Smiles emphasized the importance of hard work and building your character. Instead of stories, parables, philosophical arguments, or the diary of a Roman Emperor, the information was presented to us more directly:

“This is what you should do.”

This continued into the 20th century.

As a Man Thinketh (1903) by James Allen, Think and Grow Rich (1937) by Napoleon Hill, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) by Dale Carnegie, and The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) by Norman Vincent Peale became perhaps the most famous.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the personal development field exploded. In the first quarter of the 21st Century, any effort by an expert to provide life advice found themselves in a crowded marketplace.

More. More. More.

Hundreds of thousands of books were written to help you have more. More happiness. More success. More confidence. More friends. More love. More romance. More sex. More money. More power. More comfort. More motivation. More. More. More.

While the actual methods developed did not significantly improve, the marketing did. In the 1980s, Tony Robbins flogged his personal power series on late-night infomercials. Twenty years later, ‘The Secret’ grabbed the imagination of millions by providing perhaps the simplest of all answers to universal happiness and success: the law of attraction. You imagine what you want vividly enough and it will come to you.

Before we knew what was happening the influencer industry exploded. We found ourselves in a world where social media personalities became convinced that the world wanted to hear from them on how to live their best life.

Meanwhile, the problem was that plenty of the advice was, actually helpful.

For instance, Tony’s personal power tape series had a lot of great suggestions and information on it. He drew from fields like NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and the work of Jim Rohn. Tony built a following not just because of the commercials or his charisma but also because people genuinely found the material was worth it.

Even ‘The Secret’, by Rhonda Byrne, while being largely a marketing success more than anything, encouraged positive thinking and focus.

“This can make your life better.”

Yes, plenty of bullshit…. But nuggets of gold inside it. Or to make the metaphor more accurate, gold with bullshit around it and sometimes inside it.

Now we live in an era of thought leadership. It’s a cool job to have. If you can monetize telling other people what they should do, what a life?!

But it is important to distinguish what kind of thought leadership really does make a difference. There are far more examples of influencers masquerading as thought leaders.

The Rise of the Thinking Leader

To me, the simple distinction comes from the idea of the ‘thinking leader’.

The term ‘thought leader’ implies someone who leads others through a thought that they put across to them. I believe that what we need more than that is a thinking leader. This means someone who actively hunts for nuanced and intelligent perspectives on business, psychology, health, and personal development.

The best thought leaders out there are great at two things:

1) Thinking of an idea that makes an impact

Thinking means being able to conceptualize a new idea or an old idea in a new way so that it adds more value to their life or the lives of others. The ideas that Malcolm Gladwell, Simon Sinek, Adam Grant, and Brene Brown have brought into the world through their speeches or books are not new. They are, however, presented in a new way, to a new audience, to provoke a new way of thinking.

Consider ‘Give and Take’ by Adam Grant. The big idea? Givers do better in life than Takers. While that insight is relatively intuitive, Grant cleverly bolsters the concept with research that provides nuance to our understanding of it.

Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’ is anything but new. The concept is a simple take on inspiring communication that has much in common with fundamental principles of marketing via your value proposition or the notion of mission-driven leadership. However, the way Sinek packages and presents it in the TED talk that made him famous was presenting at its best.

2) Communicating this to large audiences through the media they have at their disposal

Communicating the idea to large audiences involves being able to clearly and memorably articulate their messages effectively and engagingly. They build communities around their ideas because they have successfully made those ideas contagious. They master not just the research or insight but the ability to market an idea through their writing and speaking.

Mistakes wannabe Thought Leaders make

Most influencers make at least one of four mistakes. I call them as follows:


Many influencers make the mistake of thinking that they can be an expert without the years that it takes to develop the knowledge and skills. Everyone believes they can take a great photograph but great photographers become great by practicing over thousands of hours. The same can be said for thought leadership. You don’t simply become one by saying you are one. You have to earn it.


What some people do is repeat something they heard but don’t understand. They regurgitate stuff that somebody else has said far better than them. Often, this makes them less likely to get noticed. Yet, if they manage to get lots of attention, they can succeed even without adding much value to their followers. Even worse, they will often repeat advice that doesn’t make sense because they fail to contextualize it. They are too focused on the quantity of content as opposed to having a point of view that will actually make a difference.


They make up all sorts of things that they believe in and build a tribe that follows them. This is particularly true for spiritual influencers or those who use big words. It is also a big part, unfortunately, of how much management consultancy works. They speak in fancy language and talk about abstract concepts. They act as if they are speaking the deepest truth and rely on the listeners to buy into this notion and swear by them. They master the art of bullshit. But it never lasts. Eventually, they are found out.


This is when someone becomes famous for one area of expertise and begins to claim expertise in other areas. For instance, someone becomes known as a top fitness expert on TikTok. They soon start talking about motivation and then relationships or whatever gives them more views. Instead of talking about what they actually know about, they proceed to chase after the attention.


To become a great thought leader, we must be clear about what we know about and what we don’t know about. We must understand what thoughts we have about the topics we know about and how they are different from the conventional wisdom we have learned. We must organize these thoughts into key ideas and frameworks. The way we start is by studying, researching, and understanding what came before us.

To help you do this, here are six useful steps:

1. Identify the thinking leaders

Who are the experts in your space? Identify six top experts and study their websites, YouTube channels, podcasts, newsletters, and social media.

2. Identify the key ideas

As you pour over their content, extract their key ideas and how they are different from each other. Summarize each key idea in a sentence.

3. Understand the key frameworks

Identify the key frameworks they use and how they are different from others. What are the important parts of each framework? What do they have in common?

4. Work out your point of view

Reflect on what you agree with and disagree with. What parts of each framework do you agree and disagree with? Reflect on your experiences and what you believe to be true in this space.

5. Understand your own key ideas

Note down the key ideas that you have and what makes them different from everybody else. Collect these ideas from your experience and thinking after reflecting on what you’ve learned. The key is to find the ideas that go against the grain or common knowledge in the area.

6. Build your own frameworks

Create some frameworks that can guide someone through how to succeed in that area. Know clearly how these frameworks differ from everyone else. Find a clever and memorable way to present it to others.

Loving the Industry

It’s hard being in this industry. Whenever I sell what I do, I feel icky. Even in the masterclass I did to promote the Thought Leaders Mentorship, I never enjoy the sales part of it. I’ve seen so many people over the last fifteen years marketing online and I know how I feel listening to them. My love is in entertaining and teaching people.

There are a lot of influencers and gurus and experts and celebrities all vying to be a thought leader. I know that at least when I market or sell my memberships or courses, I very much believe in them.

I’ve been doing this for more than two decades and I’ve worked with thousands of people so I know I’ve put in the time. I’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to grow my business and understand how the industry works. That’s a big reason why I’m still thriving all these years later. It’s not just how good you are, it’s how good your business is.

If you’re a thought leader, you can’t wait for other people to figure out how good you are. You need to step out to stand out. The way you step out is by marketing yourself as effectively as possible. You do it also by making sure you show up consistently online and demonstrate your pedigree.

Thought leaders think better and communicate better. This is something we can start to do from the beginning. We need to know the landscape we exist in and understand what makes us different and special. Only then can we become the leaders that we are and help people to make their lives better and their businesses more successful.





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