What Makes a Person a Real Thought Leader, Not Just a Self-Proclaimed Thought Leader?

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More than ever, thought leadership is integral to content marketing as consumers seek more credible information before buying anything. 

But thought leadership isn’t a status you accord yourself; you EARN it because of your relevant contribution to your audience and industry. There is a thin line between being a self-proclaimed thought leader whom no one follows and a real thought leader whose ideas drive buyers’ behavior. 

First, I’ll explain what thought leadership is.

What is Thought Leadership?

The term “thought leadership” was coined by Joel Kurtzman, an American economist and the then editor-in-chief of the Booz Allen Hamilton Strategy & Business Magazine, a content marketing publication. He referred to thought leaders as people “who had business ideas that merited attention”.

A closer look at Kurtzman’s definition shows that you get attention because of your ideas' perceived relevance and authority. People give you their ears and eyes because you have answers to their specific questions.

Let’s check out two more definitions. Lisa Gately, principal analyst at Forrester, defines thought leadership as an “intentional exercise of knowledge, skills, and expertise to increase awareness, elevate perception, and drive preference related to key issues that an audience cares about".

In a world where most people suffer from information overload and a short attention span, ATTENTION is a scarce treasure. If you consistently have it, you’ve struck gold in your business. And that’s what thought leaders who “drive preference related to key issues that an audience cares about” GET.

The third definition is from Michael Brenner, the Founder of Marketing Insider Group, who says, “Thought leadership means you provide the best and deepest answers to your customers’ biggest questions in the formats your audience likes to consume them".

How do you get business ideas that merit attention? How do you drive key issues your audience cares about? How do you know your customers’ biggest questions or how they love to consume content? 

By paying ATTENTION to your audience. The audience is at the heart of thought leadership. When you pay attention to how your skills and knowledge can serve your audience, you get their attention in return, which translates to an ever-growing client base.

Thought leadership isn’t a buzzword for forcing your ideas on an audience who doesn’t care about what you are saying or patching different ideas from the internet so you can have something to say or driving narratives you have not tested and proven. 

It is more than a marketing campaign or industry stunt; it’s deliberately being the person who CARES about their audience and devotes their life to drawing on their expertise and knowledge to provide insightful answers to their audience’s specific questions every time. 

Another important piece of advice you should pick from Lisa’s definition is that thought leadership is a long-term game. According to Lisa, “Thought leadership serves brand equity goals, and that’s going to be built up over months and years.”

If you aren’t ready for the long haul, don’t get in the game in the first place.

I’ll share some differences between a self-proclaimed thought leader and a real thought leader.

Self-Proclaimed Thought Leaders vs. Real Thought Leaders

Difference 1: Expertise

A real thought leader is an expert in their niche. To understand what it means to be an expert in your niche, you have to know the meaning of the  keywords - “expert” and “niche.” 

The word “niche” means an area of work you specialize in. You have grounded yourself firmly in this industry. You have spent years honing your skills and learning from different experiences. It’s not coincidental that real thought leaders have years of experience. 

Find Your Niche

The second keyword, “expert" means having a proprietary and definable process that brings proven results. Proprietary, in this sense, means the process you use is uniquely yours. You created the process; you didn't get it from a book or a video. You came up with a way to satisfy your customers. That process is unique to you, and so it is proprietary.

However, being an expert in your niche doesn't stop at having a proprietary process. You should be able to define and duplicate your process such that anyone can use it and get similar results. It doesn't stop at being definable either; it must be profitable. Your process should birth successful results, or no one will do business with you.

But despite their skills and knowledge, real thought leaders don’t claim to be experts. They don’t go around blowing their trumpets, “Hey, look at me. I’m an expert. I’m the best in this industry.” They establish themselves as go-to resources in their industry by the quality of information they share and their impact on their audience; as such, people see them as experts.  

Also, they NEVER stop learning. They aren’t know-it-alls. This is why they can keep abreast with industry trends or use data to spot growth patterns and make relevant predictions for their industry.

Like Kasim Aslam does. Or HubSpot. Or any other true thought leader you can think of.

On the other hand, self-proclaimed thought leaders CLAIM to be experts, but they aren’t. More often than not, they have a surface knowledge of their industry. They know little or nothing about the marketplace, but they don’t STOP talking about what they think they know. 

It’s often self-proclaimed thought leaders who portray themselves as know-it-alls. They are quick to shove their half-baked knowledge in the faces of their audience, and they never want to learn.

Difference 2: Caring for their audience

The definitions earlier stated show that real thought leaders talk about issues their audience cares about. They understand that their greatest impact is helping their audience solve their problems, not being attributed on popular websites, quoted on mainstream media, or enjoying the media paparazzi.

They know that they are here because of their audience, so they do everything they can to produce content that addresses their audience's key questions. They genuinely seek the best interests of their audience. 

Satisfying your audience puts money in your pocket, so you don’t lose when you care about what your audience wants to know and provide it.

But self-proclaimed thought leaders are the opposite. They put the cart before the horse. They are more interested in how much they can make or what they can get, whether it serves their audience or not. Some even superimpose what they think the audience wants to know at the expense of what the audience really wants to know. 

Of course, this isn’t without consequences. In the long run, their selfish actions adversely affect their business. They eventually lose their audience and go out of business.

Difference 3: Vision and Passion

Real thought leaders are visionaries. They have a strong picture of the future in mind, and they work towards it. They see the possibilities others don’t see and know how to get there. This is why real thought leaders can elevate their audience’s perceptions. 

Also, they are passionate about what they do. They are passionate about helping their audience build better businesses and lead better lives. You can feel the force of their passion in their words. They are good at taking their audience on emotional journeys. 

It’s their vision and passion that keeps them going despite difficulties. 

In contrast, self-proclaimed thought leaders are driven more by financial gains than a vision to help people or make any real impact. Therefore, they lack direction and can’t even help their target audience as they should.

Difference 4: Authenticity

True thought leaders aren’t afraid to be themselves or have strong values. They don’t try to be anybody else. They don’t pander to anyone so they can be accepted.

This doesn’t mean they don’t learn from and admire others. Or they don’t care for their audience. They do, but they are comfortable in their own skin. They know they have solutions to their audience’s problems, so people will listen to them. 

They are ready to stand out from the crowd and stick to their tested and proven ideas.

But a self-proclaimed thought leader isn’t authentic. They will do anything to maintain their false thought leadership status, even if that means gratifying baser instincts or losing their originality. 

Since they always look for the crowd's applause, they will do or say anything to get attention.

Real thought leaders know that their originality helps them stand out, while self-proclaimed thought leaders are always looking to fit in with the crowd.

Difference 5: Attitude in tough times

Your attitude in difficult times determines whether you are a true thought leader. 

Every career has tough times at some point; maybe you aren’t getting as many customers as you want, or it seems no one is listening to you, or you are doing everything you know how to do, but there’s no tangible result.

Of course, you might need to change your strategy or look for new knowledge to help you get out of the rut, but ultimately, tough times aren’t when to run away. Tough times should make you more resilient.

True thought leaders understand that difficult times are part of the thought leadership journey and provide them a greater avenue to hone their skills and improve their expertise.

They may get tired, but they keep going. They look for solutions to difficulties instead of running away from them. That’s why Lisa says thought leadership is built up over months and years.

But self-acclaimed thought leaders aren’t ready to stick it out. They weren’t driven by passion and vision in the first place, so they are easily blown off course when tough times come. They are more inclined to shy away from difficult times.

Difference 6: Collaboration & healthy competition

As expected, you will always have competitors, no matter your niche. But how committed you are to helping your audience is what makes you stand out in any niche. 

Therefore, other businesses don’t stand in the way of your success. The market is big enough for everyone to have a share. YOU determine how much your business grows, how much impact you make, and how much attention you get by the things YOU DO or DON’T DO, not your competitors.

But self-proclaimed thought leaders don’t understand this. They believe their competitors are their enemies and start antagonizing them. Some even go as far as getting involved in an unhealthy rivalry with other leaders in their niche. And this pulls them down quickly because people can easily spot when you share valuable information and when you are trying to bring other thought leaders down.

Real thought leaders aren’t bothered by competition; they see it as a catalyst for more innovation and creativity in their businesses. They are focused on serving their audience. 

They also embrace collaboration over competition. They understand that they can achieve more when they join forces with other people. 

From the points explained above, it’s easier to tell how to be a real thought leader.

How to Be a Real Thought Leader

Being a real thought leader isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. That’s why you are reading an article on how to be one. 

Choose an area of expertise

Being a thought leader means you are an expert in a particular field, and people can quote your words as an authority source. But it starts with choosing a niche:

  • you are passionate about
  • you feel you can make an impact in and 
  • that’s profitable.

If you aren’t passionate about what you are doing, you won’t even stick around for long, let alone become an expert or make an impact. Also, consider how profitable your industry is. You can make a lot of money while helping people. Besides, you are in business for profit, not for charity.

Never Shun Learning

A famous scientist once said that once you stop learning, you start dying. As a thought leader, your audience will always look to you for new information and direction. If you don’t keep learning, you can’t stay on top of your game. 

The marketplace is dynamic, and what worked two months ago might not work now. Besides, human behavior isn’t static. As your industry evolves, so should you as a thought leader. 

Kaizen. That’s the word. 

Never stop improving.

Kaizen Concept - Continuous Improvement Word Cloud

Be obsessed with your audience

Always remember that everything starts and ends with your audience. You are not a thought leader if no one’s listening to you. Your audience is why you are in business in the first place; they are the ones to reward your labor with their attention and resources at the end of the day. Attention is a scarce resource, so don’t joke with it. 

So, care a lot about your audience. Be obsessed with how you can provide answers to their deepest and biggest questions. Aim to impact their lives. 

What are their biggest fears? What are their deepest questions? What are they willing to do to get the answers they seek?

Why should they listen to you? In which formats do they love to consume content? 

Putting your audience first doesn’t mean you aren’t intentional about making money. Actually, satisfying your audience is what secures your profits in the first place.

Build relationships

You can’t survive alone in the marketplace; you need the input of other people at one point or the other on your journey. Building relationships with other thought leaders go a long way in staying updated, accessing opportunities, and gaining new knowledge.

Besides, your relationships serve as a community of supporters you can always rely on when the going gets tough. 

Ensure you build relationships on all sides - with your seniors, juniors, and colleagues.

Be authentic

You don’t have to be like another person before being heard. You can have mentors and coaches, but don’t lose your voice. Instead, find your voice and turn up the notch. 

Anybody can be a fake, but only one person is the original. Don’t be afraid to let your originality shine through. Sometimes, what makes you stand out isn’t the depth of solutions you provide but your uniqueness in expressing what you believe and how you relate with your audience. Other thought leaders can share more insightful takes or have better data than you, but no one can be YOU.

And that is a strong advantage!

Be ready for the long-term game

Don’t get into thought leadership if you aren’t ready to play long-term.

Don't think thought leadership if you find it hard to be consistent for a long time.

It’s a journey of twists and turns, but with long-term loyalty from your audience. You will sometimes get tired, but you can always take a break. 

However, quitting at the sight of any problem won’t get you far. You’ll face challenges that may appear tough but overcoming them launches you to a higher level in your thought leadership journey. 


With thought leadership, you can build a strong brand affinity in the marketplace. Your audience easily trusts you and rewards you with long-term loyalty.

But you won’t get to this point overnight or by according yourself to a status you have not earned. It requires a lot of effort to be a real thought leader, but it’s one of the most exciting paths you can ever take. 

We’ve put together a workshop for you on how to be a real thought leader in your niche. Click here to get started.


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