Ask many who they would consider a modern-day thought leader and the answer would surely include people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. But, what about the thought leaders of the future? What is thought leadership and what makes a thought leader? This is not an easy question to answer. There are many definitions. In fact, some of the very qualities that we identify with traditional leadership are also found in thought leadership. Being a strong role model is one that comes to mind. Today’s successful leaders need to be even more insightful, more innovative, and constantly challenge their company to develop new ideas and initiatives. Complacency is not an option in today’s marketplace.
In general, thought leaders look beyond the horizon and are able to see the possibilities ahead. This is the simplicity and beauty of new ideas. Today’s and future thought leaders need to take it one step further. They not only need to recognize opportunities, but also need to have the wherewithal to challenge obstacles, identify risks, and assess the possible return on their investment. A colleague of mine recently gave me an interesting analogy. A person developing strategy is one hand of thought leadership and the person/people that develop those strategies into functional things or services represent the other hand. Applause takes two hands. Thought leaders have already begun to recognize that a big part of being successful is reaping the monetary benefits of your ideas and projecting your company forward visually and monetarily into the marketplace. A great idea that is not implemented to its fullest is not worthy of applause. Sadly enough, today’s society generally does not value invention or innovation without monetary connection.
Many factors affect the current speed of thought leadership. The largest factor is the technological advances that we constantly experience today. This also opens a whole world of opportunity in every industry. Thought leaders of today and tomorrow must have a certain level of self-awareness that enables them to see beyond the horizon while also recognizing the strengths of the teams around them. Then, they must effectively advance the ideas to the marketplace and reap above average returns on their investment. All this while also staying grounded in the core competencies of the company and being able to adapt to the changing landscape of the industry. That’s a large calling. Perhaps the recently published article in Forbes said it best, “Becoming a thought leader is about making money and making history.”1