5 Characteristics of a Thought Leader

What is a thought leader?

Wikipedia defines thought leadership as follows: A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.[1] The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first citation for the phrase an 1887 description of Henry Ward Beecher as "one of the great thought-leaders in America."

Thought Leadership is a term used often in the online community, and often in the context of companies that are innovating, disrupting, and succeeding in the ‘new economy’. As a recent article in Fortune stated, “thought leadership is tech industry jargon for people who are well-known experts in a subject. The role usually involves a lot of self-promotion through tweeting, blogging and speaking…”

This past spring, Ellen Pao, past interim CEO of Reddit, brought a discrimination and retaliation suit in San Francisco Superior Court against her former employer, venerated Venture Capital investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where Ms. Pao was a former partner. Kleiner’s defense attempted to convince the jury that Ms. Pao did not demonstrate proficiency as a ‘thought leader’.

Not surprisingly, the jury asked… “How long does it take to become a thought leader?” “Can it be learned? Can it be taught? Is it possible not to become one after many years?”

Responding to the Pao vs. Kleiner trial jurors, in my view thought leadership is…
• Earned, not learned or taught.
• Takes time to become one.
• Happens naturally for those who have it.
• Requires taking some risk, mainly to prove the concept being discussed.

A very short list of luminaries seemingly qualified as ‘thought leaders’ includes Marketing guru Seth Godin; Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen; Former Medtronic CEO Bill George; Inventor and Entrepreneur Jon Rubenstein; Jay T. Rubinstein, MD., PhD, and other medical technology pioneers including Mir Imran, Graeme Clark, Wilson Greatbatch; Early computing pioneers Steve Jobs, Bill Gates; Investor Warren Buffet. The list goes on.

What are some of the characteristics of these people, and countless others on a much longer list, that separates them from their colleagues and contemporaries, and defines them as thought leaders?

Here is a list of five characteristics that defines thought leadership in my view…
1. Own original ideas (not curated) that are worked out and vetted with energy, resources, and endless vigor.   (Investors, Entrepreneurs who take risks)
2. Be an authority on your subject, or subjects, someone whom others seek out for definitive opinions. (Speakers, writers, researchers)
3. Dedication to developing an original concept or idea, developing proof of concept and ‘owning’ the outcomes. (Risk takers in general)
4. Ability to predict trends and outcomes with sets of uncertain data. (Futurists, artificial intelligence and big data experts)
5. Ability to influence others point of view, as a subject matter expert.

Feel free to comment as I would love to hear your thoughts. This is not a definitive list or definition of thought leadership, just my own musings.