Denise Brosseau believes that leading in today’s complicated world requires clarity of intention, voice, and focus. In essence, it requires thought leadership. In Denise’s view, thought leadership isn’t just about being famous or being known, it’s about getting your ideas out to the world in a way that promotes engagement, connection, and action. And Denise believes thought leadership is a practice that can be learned.

Denise is on the faculty of the Stanford Business School and the CEO of the Thought Leadership Lab. She is also the author of the book Ready to Be a Thought Leader? and runs online classes on thought leadership through LinkedIn Learning. I asked Denise to share more about her views on thought leadership and the importance of investing in it as a leadership practice and organizational capability.

Lisa Kay Solomon: What is thought leadership? Why is this important these days?

Denise Brosseau: Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas, turn those ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success. Over time, they create a dedicated group of friends, fans, and followers to help them replicate and scale their ideas into sustainable change, not just in one company but in an industry, a niche, or across an entire ecosystem.

Thought leaders are changing the world in meaningful ways and engaging others to join their efforts. They create evolutionary and even revolutionary advancements in their fields, not just by urging others to be open to new ways of thinking, but by creating a blueprint for people to follow. They provide guidelines or a set of best practices.

Thought leaders are all around us—men and women, young and old. They come from every ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic background. Most thought leaders are change agents, people trying to change the world around a cause they care about. They engage with stakeholders and followers so that together they can bring about long-term sustainable change.

The world is full of challenges and injustices, and we need more leaders who understand what it takes to become a thought leader. We need people who can create change and even build movements that transform laws and attitudes and galvanize others to take action.

LKS:  We often think of thought leaders as people with special credentials or status, and that followership flows from that position. But in your book Ready to Be a Thought Leader?, you state that thought leadership starts with finding your purpose.  Can you share more about that perspective?

DB: To become recognized as a true thought leader takes time and a lot of stick-to-itiveness. This is why I highly recommend you start with what you care about. Choose a niche that is aligned to your purpose. Then you’ll be far more likely to work to build the credentials and expertise needed to be recognized as a thought leader.  After that you can take the steps to gather followers.

Ask yourself, what are you committed to? What do you spend time on when no one is watching you or paying you? What topics get you fired up?

This is usually something you can speak passionately about. It could be the latest tax code changes, the importance of saving the condors, or why women need their seat at the table.

People want to affiliate with those who are well-known and in the know. Thus, thought leadership also leads to invitations to join corporate boards, serve on government commissions, and participate in industry-wide committees—opportunities to raise your profile from the local to the national to the international stage.

Thought leadership is like the ripples in a pond—you start as a leader, encouraging those around you to make change. Then, as you engage people to share your ideas, those ideas reach a wider and wider audience. As your followers grow, you can accelerate change locally and then at a national or even international scale.

LKS: You talk about different types of thought leaders. Can you explain that a little bit more?

DB: While the path to becoming a thought leader is often similar, people who become thought leaders are not all motivated by the same priorities. Some are builders, motivated to create and show a new path.

Others are collaborators who are motivated to create connections between people with the goal of finding and shaping the best solutions for all. Another category is what I call the competitors. They are motivated to be at the top of their niche, to “win” in a sense by differentiating themselves and standing out from the crowd.

I think of some folks as intellectuals. They are motivated to share their research, knowledge, or lessons learned.

Next, there are the provocateurs, who are motivated to shake things up and challenge the status quo. Some are constructive provocateurs who are willing to patiently make incremental change. Others are revolutionaries ready to abandon the present methods and completely start over. And finally, there are the defenders, who want to protect something important from being changed or destroyed.

LKS: You’re now doing work with organizations that aspire to be thought leadership organizations. Can you describe what that is? How does that differ from just strong branding?

DB: Thought leading organizations are usually motivated by far more than building a strong brand. They know their reputation is shaped by more than their products and services, or even by the voice of the CEO. They want to cooperate with a group of stakeholders to advance industry priorities or a shared cause. They work to establish a strong voice and point of view in the marketplace. They strive to build trust among their customers and community.

They empower every employee to share their knowledge and expertise as an ambassador for the organization. Then they can truly stand out from the crowd and accomplish their goals.

Recognized thought leaders will have the power to persuade, the status and authority to move things in a new direction, and the clout to implement real progress and widespread innovation.

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Lisa Kay Solomon is a well-known thought leader in design innovation with a focus on helping leaders learn how to be more creative, flexible and resilient in the face of constant change. Lisa is the Chair of Transformational Practices and Leadership at Singularity University a global community of smart, passionate, action-oriented leaders who want to use exponential technologies to positively...

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