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3 Kinds of Thought Leader: Which One Are You?

Updated: May 20, 2022

The Thought Leader Model, Why Not You?

You see them out there - with their TED Talks and their podcasts and their book deals. The thought leaders. And you think that looks good. I mean, you have thoughts, why not you?

If you’re a coach or a content creator - or frankly a lot of things - the thought leader model may seem like a natural ambition. They’re the superstars of the personal growth industry. It’s tempting to see yourself in that job.

The tricky part of it is that it’s not really a job.

There’s no certification for Thought Leadership. You don’t start with an entry-level job as a Notions Assistant, work your way up to Ideas Supervisor until, finally, a spot opens up in the Thought Leadership Department.

Becoming a thought leader is a thing you become sort of…by the way. Almost accidentally. While you’re providing some other good to the world. You work at something you care about. You offer value over and over, and then…one day you see yourself referred to as a “Thought Leader.”

And you’ll notice I said “referred to,” as in referred to by someone else. You don’t eeeeeeever call yourself a thought leader.

“The term ‘thought leader’ is an attribution, a compliment that is earned and given to you, not something you type in a bio that's self-ascribed,” says Inc. Magazine, “...It's a nice thing for someone else to call you, but an obnoxious thing to call yourself…”

And we don’t want to be obnoxious…do we?

So. What do you want here? Because the drive to be a thought leader can come from both good and not-so-good desires.

It can be all about craving power or gaining leverage with a gullible group so you can sell them some crappy product. A lot of the’s just about attention.

Still, call me naive, but I think it usually comes from a good place. In my work with coaches, consultants, and knowledge workers I’ve seen a lot of people who are just aching to raise others up. They’ve gotten somewhere now, and they want to pay it forward.


So… let’s assume, for now, that’s you.

You’re coming from a good place.

You have some help to offer and you want to go wide with it. What’s next?

I would say the next step is to start up a conversation - a problem-solving conversation. You do that by creating content. But not just chatter. Think of your content as walking into a room of friends who are struggling with an issue.

How can you help them? Do you know something? Do you know someone who can help? Do you have the message that can change their life for the better?

In short - are you an Expert, a Pointer, or a Believer?

In this article, I want to break down these 3 models of thought leadership. See what matches your style. From there you can figure out how to offer value. What’s your role?

The Expert as Thought Leader

Neil DeGrasse Tyson knooooows Astrophysics. Psychotherapist Esther Perel is a black-belt in relationships. Anthony Fauci could dominate on Jeopardy - provided the whole board was about Public Health.

They are the Experts. Each Expert provides one-stop shopping for information in their specific domain. They know a ton about that one topic. When you have a question relating to it - your mind goes to them, immediately, nowhere else. They’re a primary and quotable resource in their field.

But… that’s all you go to them for.

Dr. Fauci is a great source on communicable diseases. But you’re not wondering about his views on breastfeeding or whether or not you should get bangs.

The Expert is a deep, but very narrow, source.

If you want to be this kind of thought leader just know…you’re probably not. And don’t worry about that. Most people aren’t. And you actually help the community by stepping back a bit when an expert is called for.

Non-experts weighing in on everything as if they are is the opposite of contributing. It usually results in derivative content, icky posturing, and downright dangerous output.

Don’t do this to yourself. Don’t do it to your community. And if you’re stressing because you think you need to know everything, relax.

This is almost certainly not your path. Experts are rare thought leaders, and they spend decades in the study and practice of a very specific discipline. The best way to help here is not to pretend.

If you want to help with expertise, you might be better off in the role of Pointer.

The Pointer

What the Pointer offers is guidance…guidance toward the expertise. For instance, think about the grand poobah of aaaaaaall thought leaders - Oprah.

Oprah is a professional noticer. We depend on her to show us where the gold is in our culture. She’s not just a trend-setter. Her curation goes deeper and has more intention behind it.

What she recommends - what’s she reading, eating, paying attention to - seems to hinge on creating and sustaining a meaningful life.

She highlights other people’s accomplishments, other people’s struggles - but it’s Oprah we think of as the authority.

Or consider Al Gore or Greta Thunberg. They point us toward the climate scientists. They direct our attention to the needs of the planet. We can’t look away as easily now, and so we go to them, not for their research, but for direction on the subject.

They’re not the scientists, but they are the thought leaders.

This is kind of a natural landing place for a lot of people - especially those who are good at creating single streams of reliable information out of a wave sources. If you like to cull good information, if you like to recommend, shout out, and display - you might be a Pointer.

Good Pointers are a huge plus to a community. A responsible and positive Pointer clears away confusion and delivers direction to people who crave a meaningful path.

The Believer

Brene Brown is a researcher, yes. She’s an author and a professor. But that’s not what she is to us. Brene Brown is a Believer.

She roots her beliefs in science, but she’s a value to the community by how her message inspires us live - bravely through wholeheartedness.

The thought leader as Believer actually can be an expert in something, but it’s their overarching philosophy that convinces us to follow them.

Marie Kondo is a Believer. She inspires people all over the world to create happiness through order and by reserving space only for what “sparks joy.”

If you’re a coach on the road to thought leadership - this, in my opinion, is the most organic way to grow into that position. As a Believer, you lead through your own story, through a personal code and a point of view - something I hope you’re cultivating anyway.

Eckhart Tolle, Tony Robbins, Glennon Doyle, the Dalai Lama - what they all offer is way to…be.

The Believer delivers a hopeful, value-driven message of how to do life. Not how to do it perfectly, but how to do it well.

Stand in the Place Where You Work

The main thing to remember here is sort of the hardest thing to do. Hard because it’s long-term work and it invades everything. But then…that’s what makes it great too.

On the way to building their brand, your favorite thought leaders decided to stand for something. And so should you. That’s it. That’s my advice on your thought leader model.

Ultimately, whether you're a Pointer or a Believer…or even an Expert, the obvious and hard work is, simply, to stand for something.

Consider what gift you want to bring to the community you serve. Then how you want to supply it. Are you here to inform them, direct them, or inspire them? What’s your soft superpower?

When you understand that, you can start shaping your message in the best way to be heard, not to mention you’ll have something to say worth hearing.

Think I could help you with this? Book a call and let’s get to the best way to be heard.


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