The words “Thought Leadership” are used so often that it’s easy to lose sight of the true definition of the moniker. And it’s difficult to visit social, YouTube, or do a Google search about a topic and not find several self-anointed “thought leaders” with an opinion to share along with a landing page designed to pull you into an automated email sequence and sell you a coaching program where they can “help you reach 7-figures in your business.”
Eye roll. Good grief.
The waters have become red because of self-aggrandizement, a whole lot of ego thumping, and very little focus on being helpful to an actual audience that cares.
So — I wanted to take a brief moment to describe real thought leadership — and perhaps most importantly — why the ROI of thought leadership should matter to business owners.
First — let’s define it.
Defining Thought Leadership
True thought leaders rarely use the term “thought leader” when describing themselves or when sharing their background. A thought leader never spews low-value content about their personal brand all over social media — and then chatters non-stop.
Instead — true thought leaders are quietly and patiently focused on drilling a deep, deep, deep, deep well of expertise in their craft and within a particular industry (or industries).
They work hard, they make mistakes, they have some successes, and they make more mistakes. And they do that over decades.
In other words — a true thought leader is not a one-trick pony.
So what do I mean by that?
Well let’s go back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. The traveling circuses of the day were referred to as “dog and pony shows.” The shows were given that name because they featured trained dogs and ponies as main attractions during the performances.
Utilizing dog and pony acts within the show was necessary because the traveling circuses were typically forced to perform in outdoor venues that didn’t offer much in the way of space and accommodations. But if a smaller show proved to be successful — then perhaps a more elaborate show could be persuaded to make its way to the same small town — and with it — would come an opportunity to perform in front of a paying audience.
These dog and pony shows were also credited with the origin the colloquial phrase still commonly used today, “one-trick pony.” The story could be fact or fiction and is said to involve The Cuffling Circus while they were performing in Oregon in 1905.
One of the Cuffling performances didn’t go so well. The featured act that evening involved a pony that unfortunately for the circus and the audience — knew just a single trick — how to play dead. The dull and unimaginative act lacked depth and substance. So much so that the audience demanded a refund. And the phrase, “one trick pony,” was born.
To this day, when something is referred to as a “one-trick pony” — or someone is encouraged to “be more than a one-trick pony,”…it implies the person has a single talent and a very shallow depth of expertise…if any.
So a true thought leader is the complete opposite of a one-trick pony.
A true thought leader has invested decades perfecting their craft, they have developed a depth of expertise, and when they share their knowledge with their audience — the audience is better for it.
He or she has also honed their teaching skills and can creatively share their experience through a provocative point-of-view, which results in attracting an audience who views the world through a similar lens. And they’re focused on being helpful to their audience across multiple channels because this gives them the opportunity to impact more people…faster.
In fact — I covered this topic with some real depth during Episode 854 of Onward Nation. You can find it here.
Here’s what true thought leaders don’t do. They don’t go to Barnes & Noble one weekend, buy all of the bestselling books on a topic, read them, summarize or “curate” the content, and then add some of their “insights” on top of the other’s work and then expect that level of effort will qualify as their “thought leadership.”
It doesn’t. That isn’t thought leadership. That’s charlatanism. And it’s worthless.
“Thought leader” is a term your audience will use to describe you — when they value you. And they will call you that, or “expert,” or “guide,” or “mentor” — because you have given so much of yourself to help them get better, to improve, to add new skills, or to master your area of expertise.
Thought leadership is never self-proclaimed.
Okay — so why should a business owner seek to be seen as a thought leader?
Because if you’ve been in business a while now — you’re already an expert at something valuable. Otherwise, your customers wouldn’t pay you and you would have gone out of business.
But you’re still here.
You’re still in the trenches every day looking to be helpful to your customers. You must be doing something right. You have a depth of expertise that’s worth sharing. Awesome.
Showing the ROI of Thought Leadership
Second — your customers have already demonstrated their willingness to pay you for your expertise and the expertise of your team. Which means that if your customers find you insightful — it is likely others will, too.
If you begin sharing your insights and wisdom through weekly cornerstone content (In Episode 676 of Onward Nation — I map out how to strategically create cornerstone content), you will begin to build an audience.
And yes, it may be a small audience at first. That doesn’t matter.
Initially — your goal should be to just build an audience – even if it is a small one – with the goal of being helpful. It’s not about numbers…it’s about the relationship. It’s about you investing in your audience…all of your knowledge…everything you can pour into your relationship with them with the sole goal of being helpful.
And then guess what?
When you do that over time – and your audience sees and hears how sincere you are – and that you have their best interests at heart – when you have something to sell…maybe it’s an in-person workshop, maybe you and your team are rolling out a new service offering, or you’re launching a book…whatever…your audience – not everyone of course – but a chunk of your audience will be eager to support you.
But it’s because you invested in them first – way, way, way before you ever asked them to invest in you.
That’s what we call The ROI of Thought Leadership…because everything you have created, shared, and taught drives revenue back into your core business in a predictable, repeatable, and measured way.
And that’s rock solid awesome!