Newsletter Articles

This article was written by IIBN Member Stephen Lynch, Consultant for Right Angles

What actually is a ‘thought leader’?

The term is one of the many meaningless buzzwords and phrases that are bandied around by generic marketing people to confused audiences in countless seminars from Dublin to Dallas.

It’s become a clichéd form of describing what someone does, like ‘influencer’, ‘growth hacker’ or – my personal favourite – ‘visionary’. Does this mean they have regular quasi-religious experiences?

Joking aside, thought leadership is about giving and serving, rather than focussing transactionally about what you’re getting in the short term. The more you can offer value to your customers, clients, colleagues and even competitors, the more that comes back.

I’ve reflected on this concept of thought leadership out in Los Angeles, a gigantic, sprawling city where some of Ireland’s best and brightest have called home - from Colin Farrell, to Robbie Keane and Conor McGregor.

I’ve been meeting many interesting and inspiring people from many different fields - infrastructure, public relations, technology, finance and venture capital. I even got to meet and learn a few moves from a kung-fu master at a beach house in Malibu!

The reputation management practice I’m from, Right Angles, advises and counsels business leaders and CEOs on how to boost their public profiles, organise their online presence and position themselves as thought leaders.

 Fundamentally, there are three essential elements of successful thought leadership which can be practiced by anyone in business, whether you are a senior business executive, a start-up entrepreneur – or a twentysomething second-generation Irish Londoner like me. These steps apply whatever field you are in.

Let me explain:

  1. Authenticity

It’s another overused term, particularly in personal development and self-help circles. However, it is fundamental to successful thought leadership. But what exactly does it mean to be authentic? It’s entirely counterintuitive, because it’s about sharing your secrets. I’m not talking about trade secrets, like the recipe for Guinness, I’m talking about you personally. What have you learned in all your time doing what you do? Imagine you want to impart this knowledge at a big industry conference like Money Conf 2019. You prepare a speech, crossing off the bits you think people wouldn’t like. 

This is your big mistake – because these are precisely the pieces of information you should be sharing. Your deepest insights aren’t in the official, on-the-record, staged, probably rehearsed speech - although you would probably be candid about these over a few pints afterwards with trusted colleagues. These insights have real value. The advice given in this informal environment after everyone else has gone home is genuine thought leadership; the whole truth so few people have the courage to tell while standing at the podium. This brings us to the second, and my favourite part: being disruptive. 

  1. Being disruptive

You know your industry inside out, and it’s likely your colleagues already come to you for advice. If you can imagine dispensing valuable new information or a genuinely useful insight, this generosity of spirit will be seen, and will truly make you heard. You’re passing on something that gives the person insight or new information. Real insight involves addressing painful things, and therefore acknowledging pain, either your own or that of your colleagues, industry or company – and that pain is the very reason why people don’t want to discuss it.

Genuine thought leadership has to be disruptive, otherwise it’s just beating around the bush. It’s about having an opinion that is authentically yours and then standing by it, and not being afraid to challenge the status quo, because it’s going to divide people. Some will agree with you, some won’t – but that’s a good thing if it’s done in a constructive way and provokes debate. Of course, this leads to vulnerability.

  1. Vulnerability

Truly challenging or disruptive thinking is not something many people do, because it involves dropping your guard and showing people the real you, faults and all. One worry might be that someone could come along and say, “Ah, but you forgot about this.” That’s actually the best thing that could happen, because you can turn that into an opportunity for learning. If your aim is to be as candid publicly as you are with your colleagues, then frankly, you have to listen as well.

What most people don’t realize is that this is the very thing that makes people sit up and pay attention. Gone are the old days when it was seen as weak to admit your mistakes – nowadays it’s actually the opposite. It’s brave, people really appreciate the candor, and your vulnerability becomes your strength. People will read it and think, “Wow, that was brave.” You’ll often find these are things they have wanted to say themselves but they haven’t had the courage to do so. 

Most people confuse thought leadership with the mechanics of it. They get distracted by which words to use, or where so say them. “Do I say this in a podcast or a press release?” The reality is, it doesn’t matter, because true thought leaders are disruptive in an emotional way. Being authentic will make people sit up and listen to you, because they know it’s real. Being disruptive means that you’re saying something meaningful. People will listen, because you are not afraid to challenge the status quo. The vulnerability this requires takes genuine courage, which is why most people don’t do it.

But if you do, whatever industry you are in, you will be a success.

Right Angles is a boutique public relations and reputation management practice with presence in London, New York and Los Angeles.

One of the founders of the personal PR industry, they provide discreet, high-intensity strategic support for high-net-worth individuals, political and industrial leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, philanthropists, charity heads and family offices.