In the early 20th century, the term “publish or perish” was coined to describe a phenomenon in academia in which faculty, to advance their careers, are expected to augment their classroom responsibilities with a steady stream of  research findings or other contributions to their fields.

(Note: By request, we are re-running this item first published on on February 6, 2014.)

While owning or running a business doesn’t have an obvious requirement to “publish or perish,” any field rewards those who seem to be able to look around corners and see the future of an industry.

Over the past 15 years, the term “thought leader”  has emerged to describe those who are the  trend setters, appear on conference panels, and are constantly quoted in industry media. They just seem to be aware of all things first.

What are the traits of such people and what does it take to become one? Here are some requirements for being a thought leader. Warning: It’s not easy.

1. Know the topic better than anyone else.

You can’t fake, outsource or buy your way into thought leadership.

Being a thought leader is like being one of those ex-players or former coaches who serve as TV commentators during sporting events. Not only do they possess a deep  knowledge of the game, they have producers and researchers feeding them information through an earpiece. More challenging, still, they must be able to translate their wisdom into an explanation to a viewer with limited understanding of the nuanced facets of the sport.

2. Be the industry or marketplace maven.

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains that mavens are the “information specialists” we rely on to connect us with new information. Not only do they have a near pathological need to collect information on a specific topic, they are similarly compelled to share the information they collect.


(Photo: Randi Scott via Flickr)

3. Have a point of view, opinion or stance.

Unlike mavens, thought leaders don’t merely collect and share information. They present their knowledge in the context of a point of view. Having a consistent position on an industry issue can help turn you into the counter-weight to an existing “thought leader.” Panels are more interesting when they have varying opinions.

4. Have at least two platforms with which to communicate with your industry audience: One that you own and control, the other, a part of a traditional business to business media brand.

It is important for you to have control of your own message. Some might describe this as having a personal brand. However, even if thousands of people subscribe to your Twitter feed or blog, to be a thought leader in your marketplace or industry; you need to reach a larger audience through a medium recognized for its importance in the industry. Your leadership will be enhanced by their leadership.

5. Provide the framework that allows others to understand the context or importance of industry news or trends.

Another way of putting this is, “Connect the dots.” Like the earlier mentioned sports commentator, be able to explain the importance of why one news item that may not seem important is actually noteworthy.

6. Occasionally, challenge the conventional wisdom.

One of the important reasons to have your own communications platform is to be able to refer back to earlier things you’ve written. Often, having that previous reference to an earlier industry event will provide you the fodder necessary to challenge a new trend that is merely a newly renamed version of something that failed in the past. Similar to providing context, this also demonstrates an understanding of the timeline of trends and changes, or the way some things never change.


(Photo: Silicon Prairie News via Flickr)

7. Write a book.

When we mentioned, “publish or perish,” we forgot to mention that this is no longer merely an academic thing, but an any industry thing. While self-publishing a book, or even an e-book, can demonstrate your depth of knowledge in your industry, the greatest credential you can have is a book published by a leading publisher in your industry.

8. Don’t be shy.

It’s fine to be humble, but don’t be obscure. Be quick to volunteer to appear at conferences before they become the must-attend events in your industry. But don’t confuse promoting your “thoughts” with promoting yourself.


(Photo: Dell Inc. via Flickr)

9. Be a part of the industry conversation on the way to being its host.

Before  becoming that industry leader you dream of being, there are ways to be a part of the conversation. Commenting on blogs. Being active on social media platforms in your industry or marketplace.

10. Credit and promote the people who made you so smart.

While it’s okay to promote yourself, make sure that you promote others. Be quick to tell people that your brilliant insight was inspired by someone else. If an idea for a blog post or a tweet originates with someone else, give them credit with something like “link via: @SmallBusiness.”


(Featured Photo: Pete Prodoehl via Flickr)

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