So, you’d like to be a thought leader?

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Joel Kurtzman editor in chief of Strategy & Business magazine, used the term in 1994 for a series of interviews and it has since gained currency on TED talks and in the media.

What makes a thought leader? They tend to be experts in their field/industry. They are well respected and make an effort to connect with people and share their ideas freely without expecting anything back. The most sincere want to make a difference and spend time thinking about ways that can improve their industry or field. And they do it continuously. They do not traffic in one great idea; they are always busy sharing their thoughts and ideas with their networks.

Marketing strategist Dorie Clark, writing in the Harvard Business Review, describes a thought leader as someone with a reputation as a “singular expert – someone who doesn’t just participate in the conversation, but drives it”. She says recognition as a thought leader doesn’t happen without “leverage” – you have to be recognized by the wider public. Clark sees six prerequisites for achieving that recognition ( a robust online presence, high-quality affiliations, public speeches, TV appearances, awards, authoring a book.

Facilitator Heléne Smuts of CONTRACT SA, specialists in organizational and human resource development, agrees that promotion of your personal brand is important but notes, “more importantly, it is something that you continuously develop through networking, engaging with people, research, and having a true understanding of the industry you want to focus on.”

Smuts sees thought-leadership as a more sincere process than Clark’s six steps: rather than making fame and a TED talk speaking engagement the goal, true thought leaders are driven to share their ideas, making their “content” available to anyone who wishes to explore it. They don’t see their intellectual property as currency for personal advancement but as a voice in a wider, very inclusive conversation.

It is the thoughts that come first, then their dissemination and networking with other specialists; personal brand-building and recognition follow.

To be recognized as a thought leader in your field is the ultimate goal of anyone who is passionate about achieving expertise and recognition amongst their peers. The first step to that, says Smuts, is unlocking the creativity inside you to find the solutions that position you as an expert. Thought leadership is not a skill that you attain by going on a course.

As Smuts points out, “To be a thought leader it is important that your creativity is ignited, that you come up with innovative ideas or solutions and share those, constantly engaging with people who can impact you and you can challenge your thinking, connecting to networks and having an impact on them.”

So if you can’t do a course in Thought Leadership, what can you do to unlock your potential? Smuts sees great opportunity in coaching for aspirant thought leaders. “A good coach will facilitate the unlocking of your creative potential and help you develop solutions for your field that are worth sharing,” says Smuts. “The coach can help you find your best path along the steps Dorie Clark lays out, but to build and sustain a reputation as a thought leader it is original ideas that will count – and coaching is a huge help here. A good coach is there to serve as a soundboard and guide you, through pertinent questions, to come to your own solutions and insights. It is really about helping you find the answers within you.”

It must be said that while recognition as a thought leader will certainly boost your career, it is a very public role to take on, and is not the right path for everyone, says Smuts. “Another way to shine in your organisation is to learn the coaching process yourself, and apply it in your business. Afterall, at the heart of every great business is a great coach; a leader, who understands how to effectively coach their team and enjoy greater employee engagement, retention, heightened performance and business results.

To find a great coach, or to learn more about developing coaching skills, contact Heléne at CONTRACT SA or

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