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7 Rules for Effective Thought Leadership

No matter the industry, thought leadership today is an increasingly important aspect of a company’s branding. The rapidly shifting preferences of consumers toward companies that seem more personable means that C-level executives must take the lead when it comes to shaping their brand’s identity.

Successful thought leaders can encourage higher traffic, sales, and conversations for a brand. Even though many companies understandably still make their product the star of the show—understandably so—thought leadership offers a long-term source of post-sales SEO and content.

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Taking a leadership position in your industry requires you to step outside of the mainstream and embrace that which makes you original while remaining transparent. If you succeed, you can stand out from the sea of competitors and be a unique force in your field. Here are the seven rules to follow to be an effective thought leader for your brand.

Stop Imitating

As the famed philosopher Rene Girard’s “mimetic theory” posits, we learn human behavior through imitation. Our imitative drive leads us to compete for the same resources and is problematic to a thought leader. First, it means an obsessive focus on our rivals’ performance, even at the expense of our own goals. Second, that level of competition doesn’t really tell us anything about the object’s underlying value. In the end, imitation leads to increasingly fierce competition over meaningless goals. You may not be fully able to escape imitation, but the first step is to be aware of it. That way, you can understand how it motivates people, and be well ahead of the crowd.

Embrace Contrarianism

For a thought leader to be heard above the din, he must present something unique which goes against the grain. There are boundless stories of executives and founders who famously go against the mainstream knowledge, but few of those that follow the herd. Those who succeed in the business world do so because they’re willing to take risks, both financially and personally. For thought leaders, this means taking a stand, and daring to make a point, even if it’s controversial.

It’s more about making a unique point than simply disagreeing with common knowledge. True contrarians understand crowd behaviors even if they don’t partake or believe in them. Instead, they can take advantage of this comprehension and find exploitable opportunities. By proving the value of a contrarian point of view, you set yourself up as a visionary who is willing to stand alone against the mob.

Don’t Talk About What Is, but What Could Be

Thought leaders are looked at to provide a promising view of the future, and guidance for a better outlook. However, it can be quite easy to slip into platitudes, clichés, and derivative “insights” to project an intellectual image. This may seem like the way to go, but it will only hurt your credibility, which is already fairly low in the eyes of many people. Reinforcing existing structures makes you seem like simply another supporter of the status quo and will paint your brand with the same brush.

Your focus should not be on what is, but what could be. The future is exciting, unknown, and full of potential for change. Thought leaders like Elon Musk specialize in this, constantly referring to the future and ways to improve the present. Keeping your attention in the now tells your audiences that you—and your business—are not concerned with being better, but simply surviving.

Read the Classics and the Ancients

Knowledge is power, and for a thought leader, it is a constant requirement. To understand the world and business, you must consistently learn more. However, your focus should be less on self-help, and more on comprehending what makes our society tick. Despite the promises self-help “gurus” and “experts” make, their knowledge is often too targeted, or otherwise abstract, to be actually useful.

Instead of expending time and knowledge on them, turn your attention to the past and read the classics, and even the ancients. Philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato can teach you much about concepts like natural and unalienable rights, the ideals of knowledge, and the human condition. Knowledge of where our modern societies come from is valuable, and it can give you a foundation for better grasping where we are headed.

Drop the T-Shirt

Startup culture today is supposedly all about originality and individualism, but the façade quickly fades when you look too closely. The image of the laid-back founder with a t-shirt and a penchant for energy drinks is woefully outdated, and the many clichés that come with it have become unfashionable. Even so, thousands of founders continue to emulate the archetype, propagating the myth of uniqueness while spouting the same jargon, dishing out the same “swag”, and focusing on the same things.

Stop worrying about how you look and sound and pay attention to your message. Get rid of the t-shirt and the self-aggrandizing story and give your readers real value in your thought leadership. Focus on those things that really matter and present an image of true uniqueness with your actions and not your words. If your message is original, readers will stick around after the initial hype fades.

Involve Your Team

Founders are in the unique position of having created a business, but not necessarily being plugged in to every single detail of its operation. Instead, team members are usually more connected to everyday issues, challenges, and experiences. Thought leaders are those executives and founders that are less concerned with their own image, and more with understanding their landscape and providing solutions. As such, the best thought leaders know to involve their team when considering the future and opportunities.

Consult your team about their challenges, their views, and how they want the company to grow and change. These insights will give you clear guidance on how to adjust your leadership strategy and give you a starting point for your insights. Involving your team also gives your brand a more approachable and friendly appearance.

Recognize, but Don’t Embrace the Zeitgeist

It isn’t easy to avoid dipping your toes into the current zeitgeist. From our culture to our media and our news, we are inundated with memes, pop knowledge, and constantly evolving norms. However, it’s important as a thought leader to recognize this without becoming flooded by it. When you do, you risk losing your voice in the crowd, or becoming simply another mouthpiece for unoriginal thought and insights. You might even put your business at risk.

The key is to recognize and learn from the zeitgeist, but to remain outside of it. Learn about your generation—their likes, the way we communicate, the existing cultural norms—and you can apply it to your strategy. Keep yourself apart from the herd and differentiate yourself by proving your valuable position as an observer and respectful critic of the status quo.

Don’t Be Boring

Perhaps most importantly, thought leaders are not just teachers or long-winded scholars—they’re powerful voices for change. In today’s hyper-saturated market, being smart is no longer a differentiating factor, it’s a built-in feature. Instead, you need to look for ways to keep your readers and potential customers interested in what you’re saying. Like Christopher Hitchens noted, “the one unforgivable sin is to be boring”. You may be brilliant at your field, but that doesn’t always translate to flashy communication skills. To get your message out, you need to hire help to craft a better and more interesting message. However, at the end of the day, they cannot speak for you. When push comes to shove, you need to leave the books behind, embrace the world, and put on your best face.