The label “thought leader” seems to get tossed around pretty indiscriminately these days. In my experience, not all definitions of thought leader are equal.

The ThinkerSo what is a thought leader? Here’s my definition.

Thought leader – an individual who can draw meaningful conclusions and put forth thoughtful, effective ideas and solutions based on a deep, intimate understanding of a particular industry or business and broad business acumen, whose opinion on business and industry trends and issues is highly regarded and sought after. Thought leadership can also be demonstrated through a business’s collective effort.

Let’s assume you buy my definition of thought leader. What, exactly, then does a thought leader do to attain thought leader status? How does one demonstrate thought leadership? And how does it benefit your business?

We’ve come up with the top 5 ways thought leaders behave.

  1. Thought leaders demonstrate they have a sincere interest in discussing and addressing the core challenges or problems of a given industry. Our client Kennametal and its CEO Carlos Cardosa immediately come to my mind as the epitome of this behavior. Cardosa has been the hands-down leader in addressing misconceptions about manufacturing careers and challenging the industry to rebrand what it means to be a manufacturer today.
  2. Thought leaders contribute to their industries independent of a “sale,” essentially providing to customers and prospects “something” for nothing. Of course, a major goal in positioning an organization or individual as thought leader is to develop business. But true “thought capital” provided to the industry is essentially never tied directly to a sale. It’s never part of a traditional business transaction. Bob Fragasso, chairman and CEO of Fragasso Financial Advisors, regularly contributes to the financial advising discourse with his opinions and insight. National and local media regularly seek his opinion, because he provides unique, thoughtful and sound commentary. Bob regularly provides insight and direction through the media and his blogs, which cover everything from including a financial planner in making career and college decisions, to practical information about debt and retirement planning, to time-tested investment advice during turbulent economic times.
  3. Organizations that are thought leaders constantly put forward relevant new ideas and concepts to serve long-term interests of the industry and their organization. Over the last several years, health care organizations have been forced to find new ways to not only survive but thrive in the brave new world of health care reform. Heritage Valley Health System CEO Norm Mitry, an early adopter and advocate for improved technology in health care, and Conemaugh Health System CEO Scott Becker, who recently led his system into the future with a huge partnership announcement, have continued to put their community hospitals in strong positions with innovative, new ideas.
  4. Thought leadership illustrates the “brain power” and problem-solving capabilities of those conducting it, demonstrating such differentiating factors as caliber and depth of intellect, poise and communication skills across multiple channels. It is especially essential for business-to-business companies that rely on dialogue, client interaction and consultation to demonstrate to prospects and clients their ideas. Thought leadership is often demonstrated through a speech, presentation, or participation on a roundtable, rather than through the short bursts allowed by today’s social media platforms and therefore requires content or ideas that are more fully developed and constructed in conventional narrative form.  WordWrite’s own blog is an excellent example, effectively communicating a deep bench of talent through creative ideas that solve problems across a range of industries.
  5. Above all else, thought leadership is authentic, and authenticity builds credibility and trust. An organization providing thought leadership has committed to dialogue not centered on the direct selling of services, which heightens company credibility.

A natural next question, then, is, “Where do thought leaders demonstrate their leadership?”

The beauty of the digital age is that the web allows for easy demonstration of thought leadership, if you have the chops to be a thought leader. And by demonstrating that thought leadership on your organization’s website – a pillar of all marketing efforts today – through your content, you’re killing two birds with one stone: the more thought leading content you create, the more likely prospects are to find your content through improved SEO. That content runs the gamut, from the content on each individual web page, to blogs, case studies, presentations and checklists.

Over time, your opinion and ideas will be pored over by clients and prospects, and your thought leadership – if substantive, effective and revelatory – will be sought after.