Some time ago, I was speaking with a friend about blogging, social media and online influence. As we spoke, a common phrase kept recurring in what he was saying. “I want to be a thought leader in my industry,” he kept sharing.
A thought leader… What does that mean? What does it really mean to be a thought leader?
The Power and Influence of a Thought Leader
The idea of being a thought leader is a powerful concept. It refers to someone who is a leader among leaders. It’s the person who challenges the thinkers to think. It’s the man or woman who develops new ideas and expands on current ones. It’s not the person who is simply restating what’s been said elsewhere.
The thought leader is the one who silences the room when they speak because everyone wants to hear what they have to say. In the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell labels this concept as The Law of E.F. Hutton.
You’ve probably heard of E.F. Hutton, the financial services company. Years ago, their motto was, “When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” Maybe you remember their old television commercials. The setting was typically a busy restaurant or other public place. Two people would be talking about financial matters, and the first person would repeat something his broker had said concerning a certain investment. The second person would say, “Well, my broker is E.F. Hutton, and E. F. Hutton says…” At that point every single person in the bustling restaurant would stop dead in his tracks, turn, and listen to what the man was about to say. That’s why I call this leadership truth the Law of E. F. Hutton. Because when the real leaders speaks, people do listen. (Maxwell, 1998)
Understanding the Human Learning Curve
It’s been said that you can lead a man to knowledge, but you can’t make him think. You have to decide to do that. You have to decide to chase after knowledge so passionately that you’re constantly looking back thinking about how little you used to know.
As we journey through life, we learn, we grow and we mature. As it happens, as we gain understanding, and as we get better at what we do, we look back and we think, “Wow. I can’t believe I did that.” Or, “Wow. I can’t believe that I thought that.”
I remember in high school, I used to look back at the things that I did in grade school and I would think to myself, “Wow! I did some dumb things.” In college I would look back to high school in the same way. In the military, I looked back to college, and today I look back to things I did last month.
When Abraham Lincoln was confronted by Republican Congressman John B. Alley for changing his position on an important issue, he responded, “Yes, I have; and I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.” (Fehrenbacher, Fehrenbacher, 1996)
This is a normal part of the human learning process. If you’ve never felt this way then it might be an indication that you’re not learning and growing.
Don’t think that this is a form of beating oneself up for the mistakes of the past. In fact, this looking back is quite the opposite. Often those mistakes, the silly behaviors, those thoughts that were a part of our past lifestyle were the learning points that lead us to where we are today. We learn from those actions and decisions and we move forward, we course correct, and we research more appropriate ways to handle situations in the future.
We look back and we chuckle at who we used to be, and we smile at who’ve we’ve become. This realization is more a celebration of where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’ll be in the future if we simply keep learning, growing, and exploring the world around us.
The more that you learn, the more you will realize how very little you knew in the past. You begin to discover your own naivety, your own ignorance. And eventually, if you continue the process, you’ll stop seeing in the past and begin discovering your own current level of ignorance. In other words, the more you expand your mind, the more you’ll discover just how much you don’t know.
Understanding the Destination is Actually the Journey
This cursory examination of this aspect of the human condition leads us to ask several important questions. How do you know when you’ve become a thought-leader? Is it when you attain a certain social media score? A certain number of followers? A best-selling book? When you’ve got more speaking requests than you can handle? How do you know if you’ve reached that point? Perhaps, the more important question is how do you know how much further you have to go?
The truth is that everyone is a leader to some extent. Leadership is influence. Nothing more. Nothing less. If you are a mother, you are a force of influence with your children. If you are business person, you are a force of influence with your employees. If you are a blogger, you are a force of influence with your readers.
Anytime someone takes action as a result of something that you say or do, you are a leader. One leader may only have one follower. Another may have over a million. Which one has arrived? The answer quite simply is no. Neither have arrived and both should be focused on continuing the journey.
In fact, the entire concept of arriving at a place where we can become complacent as a leader is a bit of a catch 22. If you think you’ve arrived, you’ve stopped learning and you begin slipping farther from the goal. When you know that you haven’t arrived, and you’re focused on learning and improving, you’re actually a lot closer to the target than those who think they have.
The transformation begins with you. Develop the leader inside you and become the driving force your community is looking for.