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Being a “thought leader” today seems to be what every person and company are striving toward. Brands want to be seen as thought leaders in the eyes of their consumers, and amongst their industry competitors. People want to be thought leaders within their companies to win a seat at the table and accelerate their careers. But, like any industry buzz-word, it’s wrought with misunderstanding. Being a thought leader is NOT the same as being an “expert”, and here’s why.

Experts are those who have mastered a technique. Their specific set of experience qualifies them to have the answers to a specific set of questions. For instance, an expert in ecommerce has launched ecommerce sites. They have evaluated, implemented, and worked with back-end platforms. They have dealt with logistics like fulfillment, order tracking, and managing returns. They have executed protocols for buying online and returning in-store, and vice versa. They can tell you what to expect in each of these areas, and they are familiar with the nuances and intricacies that have arisen along the way. But, this expertise is generally limited to what they have dealt with in their specific experiences.

Thought leaders, on the other hand, have taken their expertise further. They don’t stop at what they know from experience. They have, and continue to, expand on it, putting themselves in a perpetual state of evolution. They persist in what they do not know with no end in sight. There is no moment they are satiated or feel they have all of the answers. Thought Leaders practice chronic questioning, are genuinely open to receiving different answers, and give themselves the space to process, reflect on, analyze and brainstorm what this could mean and why. In a world that is moving quickly, and where disruption and innovation are ongoing, created a thought leadership practice is critical to being a leader and thriving amidst the chaos. 

There’s no magic pill to become a thought leader. 

To be a thought leader, there is one thing that is totally necessary, and that is to be committed to evolution. But it goes far beyond a simple affirmation. It means being willing to admit you don’t have all the answers, committing to being a chronic questioner, and actually listening to the signs and answers you receive.

But that’s not all. Maybe the most important piece, and the hardest, is about leaning into whatever fears or “oh shit” realizations arise along the way. When confronted with a challenging piece of information, event, or any obstacle that blocks the path, an expert navigates around it with strategy rooted in the past. This can work (and even work well), but this approach is not without limitations.

For most people and companies, we are unwelcoming when something blocks our way. It's a nuisance, a hinderance, or worse. We just want it to go away so we can move forward quickly. This thinking contributes to a willingness to apply band-aid solutions, which can work for a while, but usually end up doing more damage than good. On the other hand, if we pause, and question, and lean into this unwelcome obstacle, we can reach new depths of understanding it. This is were the power lies. This is the edge a thought leader has to an expert.  When a thought leader leans into an obstacle, they come out of it with a perspective that is not just based on historic solutions, but on an intimate knowledge of the issue now, and what it means into the future. Whatever strategy is applied next is then grounded in a deeper truth, ultimately creating a stronger and longer foundation for that strategy to take hold and succeed.  

The most impressive executives I’ve come across are those who show up to meetings open and receptive to the dialogue around an obstacle, and where that dialogue might lead. They cultivate an atmosphere of inquisition amongst their team, and the questions, ideas, and critiques and that come from this ultimately lead to more thought-out, collaborative and innovative solutions. These are always the brands that are leading the industry forward. These are always the companies that are laser focused on thriving instead of merely surviving a trying industry and fickle customer.

The most interesting and grounded people I’ve encountered in my life are not those that have all the answers, but instead those that are confident enough to ask questions from a place of genuine curiosity. These people don’t just have “experience” that adds up on a resume, they instead have stories to tell; and their contributions, whether those be to a conversation, a relationship, a company, or a cause, are so much richer and magnetic because they are in alignment, and there is a contagious excitement that pulsates from them because of it.