“Thought leader” is a popular term going this year. It sounds impressive and timely, even if we’re not sure what it means. At one level, the term is meaningless. If you aspire to be a thought leader, does that mean you’re currently a thoughtless leader? Joking aside, “thought leader” has come to refer to an expert in a given field who’s been able to monetize that expertise. Some look at the reference as the result of inflated ego, but also as a useful marketing tool for increasing visibility and recognition.
Whether about acclaim, expertise, money or hype, thought leadership is a growing industry. It’s no accident that this is happening even as cyberspace suggests faster is better, anonymous counts — and civility does not. The term’s popularity reflects the increasing rare blend of communication skills, expertise, emotional intelligence, vision and implementation know-how. While this skill set is not entirely unfamiliar to leaders, it’s a combination that is withering on the internet vine.
Ironically, social networks are seeing a rise in thought leadership groups. They attempt to support emerging thought leaders and embed the term into the general consciousness in the process. Group members are doing a community service by translating the skill set into digestible, actionable quick reads. Here are several quotes from thought leaders in one of these groups.
“Thought leadership requires being able to leverage your own ideas into frameworks made simple for others to follow.”
“Thought leadership means being able to voice ideas, concepts or life questions in ways that help others make sense of them and/or contribute to a better understanding, development or actualization of an organization or community.”
“A thought leader is a conscious leader with a high level of emotional intelligence, serving and growing at a higher level.”
Based on these quotes on thought leadership, how does an organization develop training that produces an/or nurtures these leaders? How do they create what are essentially futurists who can communicate complex ideas, demonstrate emotional intelligence and actively contribute to the organization’s growth and success? The answer lies in a four-step process with each stage being both stand alone and sequential.
1. Communication: Leaders must be aware that every detail of communication matters. Each detail changes the context, the perception and the response in an interaction. Whether written, verbal or nonverbal, or just the tone of voice, we are always on stage. Further, the cultural expressions and idioms we use every day are shorthand for the full range of our beliefs, traditions and values. Awareness of and sensitivity to an organization’s culture are the building blocks of cultural competency. Without such cultural awareness and sensitivity, A lack of awareness and sensitivity can lead to a train wreck on the knowledge highway between team members, customers, and vendors.
2. Emotional intelligence: Some call it learning to work outside of your comfort zone, others refer to this as conflict management. Thought leadership requires self-awareness that is nuanced, in-depth, and disciplined. There needs to be multiple levels in our comfort zones. The levels become a commonly shared metric not only of inner discomfort but of the severity of interpersonal conflicts. Blend awareness of inner and external stressors and crises can be anticipated and redirected.
3. Vision: Change agents, futurists and innovators are at a premium today. These innovators’ expertise is fundamental to their talents, but it does not stand alone. To be believable and actionable, a vision should also be trustworthy. Visionaries must establish and continually reinforce their dependability, accountability and responsibility along with the traits of empathy, hope and fairness. An impactful vision not only draws on the logic of ideas, but also on the faith and values of beliefs.
4. Action plan: When communication expertise, emotional intelligence and vision are folded into the planning process, thought leadership emerges. The decision-making matrix of goals, objectives, tasks and timelines blends the three elements into an actionable reality for team building, engagement and collaboration towards a common goal.
As we assess the past year and look to the future, thought leadership becomes our most valuable asset. We put together the story of our 2017 accomplishments and communicate it with emotional intelligence, honoring the expertise that made our achievements possible. We also put together the story for 2018 with a vision for the year and a plan for attaining it. The new year is a time for thought leaders to model being thankful and gracious and demonstrating actionable hope that the best is yet to come.
Deborah Levine, an award-winning author and trainer/coach, is editor of the American Diversity Report. Contact her at www.americandiversityreport.com This article first appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, January 14, 2018.