ITL #390   Nature or nurture: the making of a thought leader

7 months, 1 week ago


There are five stages in the journey to becoming an established thought leader whose opinions are valued by your peers and the media. By Andy Rowlands.

Are thought leaders born or can they be made? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself as I meet a new business stakeholder who expresses their desire to be ‘out there’ – quoted in the Financial Times, speaking on the biggest corporate stage and having a social media following to rival Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (196 million on Instagram by the way).


When you ask this ambitious new director for their views on the business landscape and get a blank look, or worse, a jargon filled monologue about how our solutions are more holistic than your biggest rival, the desire to pack up and go home is tempting. 


But NO!  Don’t give up just yet, because, with time, focus and some coaching anything is possible. Thought leaders aren’t born but can be grown.


A thought what?

First of all let’s unpack the term – Thought Leader. You clearly need to have ‘thoughts’ and be a ‘leader’. Sounds easy, but it isn’t.


Start with why

If the desire to be a thought leader comes from wanting to boost an executive’s ego, then they won’t get very far. There has to be a clear business rationale for it.


If you are in the professional services sector then positioning your leaders as experts in their discipline or industry is useful when clients want the very best advice to give them that competitive advantage over their rivals. Alternatively, thought leaders can inspire people to work for your company or there may be a certain topic that it is good business practice to take a leadership position on – for example diversity and inclusion issues. In each case, cultivating a thought leader will help.


Thoughts about what?

Once you have a clear business reason, the next step is to choose what ‘thoughts’ they want to be a leader in. Start with the client or audience – what are their needs or interests? Which of these does your leader have the most authority in?   


This credibility is based on having a strong track record of experience in that area or a real passion. You are more likely to listen to a former Olympic athlete give you advice about improving your fitness regime than your hairdresser, for example.


What does it mean to be a leader in thought?

We can boil this down to three core aspects – having unique, or ‘new’ thoughts, being able to communicate them and having a following. All three take time and need refinement.


Like most innovations, new thoughts need to be incubated and developed over time.  They need to be watertight through thorough testing and fine-tuning.


This thinking needs to be communicated – clearly the PR team can help with this – but to be a thought leader requires verbal and written articulation through the right channels. 


And the final point, to have a following means you need to be sought out for your views and thoughts. People want to hear from you, will ask for your input and advice.  If no-one is listening, nor taking an interest, then you may as well be talking to yourself. You’re not a thought leader.


Thought Leadership Maturity Index



A useful way of plotting the journey to becoming an established thought leader is using the Thought Leadership Maturity Index – a tool I’ve developed over the years working with numerous business leaders – where the two variables are your following (audience) and influence on them.


It can be broken down into five steps:


  1. Inactive – the baseline. You do nothing so you have no influence or following!


  1. Founding – making a start. Start with one issue, read around the subject – what are other people saying, what are the latest developments. Feel comfortable discussing the topic in your network or one-to-one with peers.


  1. Emerging – you move beyond simply knowing your subject to forming an opinion about what needs to happen to solve a problem. You share this with your network, listening to the reaction and taking on board comments.


  1. Promoting – this is where your journey to thought leadership takes off. To make an opinion more powerful you need to back it up with data through research.


Working with the marketing and PR team to proactively promote the view, the leader will share on social media, give media interviews, speak at events, network. This stage can take some time and is not a one-off. Try repeating the research regularly – quarterly or annually – to build trend data and be seen as a consistent voice on the issue.


  1. Established – if your thinking is fresh and insightful over an extended period of time. If it is shared in the right places with the right people in an accessible manner it will get noticed time and again and your leader’s personal brand will start getting associated with the topic.


Being invited to speak at the flagship industry event, asked for their opinion by respected journalists, voted onto a respected industry body and influencing debate through social media are just some of the metrics to show success. 


How long does it take?

How long does it take to get from Inactive to Established? Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, so thought leaders aren’t created overnight, indeed it takes years.


Natural vs nurtured

Clearly a leader may already have some natural flair. They could be a naturally charismatic speaker or be a particularly creative or innovative thinker. This can help, but on its own does not make a thought leader. Even those with natural talent need a certain amount of nurturing.


To be a thought leader takes time, it takes thought and it takes promotion. Not everyone has it in them to be a thought leader.  Not everyone’s thoughts can be unique, not everyone will be followed. 


The journey to thought leadership is like training for a marathon. Many people sit on their sofas thinking about getting fit. Others take up running but don’t get past five or 10 kilometres. 


Only a few are dedicated enough to train and then run the full distance. 





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The Author

Andy Rowlands

Andy Rowlands, Corporate Communications lead, UK & Europe at Accenture.

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