The first time I met someone who called themselves a thought leader was in 1997.
I was working at a political advocacy group in D.C. while waiting to see if I was picked for the Presidential Management Fellowship program. We were organizing a two-day conference, and I was assigned to handle the VIP speakers. The first VIP introduced himself as a thought leader in government reform. “What’s a thought leader?” I asked.
“A person who is a well-known expert and innovator in a particular subject,” he replied. “A thought leader is a well-respected writer and speaker others turn to for their insights and ideas.”
It was then and there that I decided to become a thought leader.
The Path to Thought Leadership
What are the benefits of being a thought leader?
First, you are recognized as the go-to expert on a topic. Second, you join a community of other thought leaders who you help to refine their ideas while they help you refine yours. And third, your observations and ideas carry more weight because of the respect given to thought leaders.
However, to be an authentic thought leader takes much work and commitment.
The Inauthentic Thought Leader: a TLA and a Slide Deck
You may have met some thought leaders who sounded authoritative and credible.
These are the thought leaders with a catchy phrase or concept – usually in the form of a three-letter acronym (TLA). These thought leaders have a well-polished presentation with flashy graphics and great personal anecdotes. Their thought leadership is like cotton candy. Big, colorful, and delicious.
And, like cotton candy, the thoughts quickly dissolve into a sticky mess full of empty (thought) calories.
Steps to Being an Authentic Thought Leader
Pick a problem worth solving – As a thought leader, you want to love the problem. But, love it carefully. Mastering a field or subject can take a lifetime of study and thinking. So, you want to pick an issue that is not too broad but is large enough to warrant your time and energy. For example, reforming government is an excellent topic with many subareas you can explore and master.
Pick a problem people care about – I have many subjects I care about. For example, I love classic science fiction and horror films. A topic that might be entertaining at a party, but what impact does this topic have on improving people’s lives? Maybe an entertaining movie night, but what is the real impact?
I choose to concentrate my thought leadership on improving the training and development of the government workforce. Better training for government workers makes life much better for the government workers and significantly improves government services to citizens. Therefore, better training and development is a problem worth solving for everyone.
Be a Missionary and Not a Mercenary – Let’s face it: Some thought leaders are in it for the money. They promise great solutions to problems but, first, you have to pay for their course/coaching/mastermind group/etc.
Once, I took a thought leader’s course only to find that if I really wanted to learn the problem-solving system, I needed to pay for a more elaborate course. So I took the second course and was told I needed to pay for personal coaching sessions. I decided against the coaching sessions because I was sure there was yet another more expensive training product I needed to buy. I’m not sure there was a real problem-solving system after all these training sessions.
Authentic thought leaders share their ideas and insights freely because they have a real passion for the benefits of solving the problem. My world-transforming purpose behind improving government training and development is to help government workers work to their full potential while having satisfying careers. Yes, I charge for some of my courses, but I have also volunteered my time for free training. I also write and speak for free on improving training and development. Giving away my time and thoughts have been more valuable than I could have imagined.
You, the Authentic Thought Leader
Being an authentic thought leader is a great way to enhance your career. People will come to you for advice, which only enhances your reputation. More importantly, your thought leadership improves the world and people’s lives. You owe your colleagues and profession to contribute your unique perspectives and thinking to help others.
Dr. Bill Brantley works in the U.S. Navy Inspector General Office as a Senior Training Specialist where he is leading the project to build the Office’s first learning portal for nearly 1,000 employees in the enterprise. He has been a program manager for the Emerging Leader Program and Supervisor Certificate Program at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He also managed the Executive Coaching and the Career Coaching Programs. Dr. Brantley was awarded the 2019 Emerging Training Leader by Training Magazine and is an IPMA-HR SCP, a Certified Professional in Talent Development, an ROI certified professional, a certified data scientist, and a Certified Professional in Training Management. He is a certified Project Management Professional, a certified agile project manager, a certified professional in business analysis, and is certified in Disciplined Agile. He has completed over 200 hours of coaching training from the Neuroleadership Institute, the American Confidence Institute, emotional intelligence coaching, and the Global Team Coaching Institute. Dr. Brantley is an adjunct faculty member for the University of Louisville (20+ years) and the University of Maryland (8+ years). He is the author of the “Persuasive Project Manager” (2019) and “Four Scenarios for the Future of the Federal Government” (2019).
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