6 min read

Becoming a thought leader: A guide to thought leadership for startup founders

Randi Sherman

June 2, 2022

In the modern world, true expertise is equivalent to thought leadership—let’s explore how this works.

Establishing yourself as an expert in your industry was once as simple as working in a specific niche for a lengthy period of time. Today, the world’s experts are not just those who have mastered their industries. Instead, they are pioneers in thinking who are willing to share their knowledge with the people around them. In this article, we will explore what makes a thought leader—and how you can become one.

What is thought leadership?

Thought leadership is the modern standard for expertise in every single industry around the world. These individuals focus on always creating value for customers and their businesses. Driven by a desire to improve the systems around them, they are constantly considering the various components of their work and the industry beyond it.

Of course, placing a deep focus on enhancing different parts of a system is not all that it takes to be a thought leader. 

To fully earn the title, you must embrace the leadership side of the name as well. Thought leaders generate, share, and amplify innovative ideas that their audience cares about on a regular basis. These observations might be common pain points or new ideas relating to a shared interest.

woman placing sticky notes on wall

Why are thought leaders so important?

Thought leaders help us make sense of the present state of our fields and industries. They help us see the world in an entirely new way, allowing us to think beyond the here and now and look toward the future instead. We can see what is possible and find bold new moves that can have a lasting impact on global industries. 

Inspiring new ideas and offering helpful solutions is all in a day’s work for thought leaders. These individuals encourage us to pull back the curtain and identify ways that our chosen fields can be improved. Sometimes thought leaders guide specific change—but other times they merely provide the inspiration that someone else needs to make key changes.

Create a vision for the future

The future is uncertain, and no matter how many times we acknowledge this truth, it will always be a little bit intimidating. Throughout history, industries, companies, and products have faded away or have become unrecognizable. This is daunting, which is why it is so important to have a clear and hopeful vision of the future to look to. This is where thought leaders step in to offer just that.

The best way to combat uncertainty is with a plan, and thought leaders are constantly coming up with these plans. A thought leader can help us better understand and support our future by creating a vision of what it could be. Having this clearly defined vision—or at least options—can help us carry our chosen fields forward and feel confident about where they are heading.

Make the future relevant

Whether we are talking about your job, your hobbies, or your personal habits, your perception of the future can be a driving force in determining your overall success. Getting ready for the future is crucial if you want to be successful in any area. Without preparation, you will find yourself on a difficult path shrouded in uncertainty.

Failing to plan for the future can destroy companies—even successful ones. When we know what to expect and allow ourselves to adjust to accommodate the future, we can meet change more gracefully. Planning empowers us to embrace change instead of fear it, and it also allows us to be pioneers that can focus on seeking out new opportunities rather than simply trying to catch up. 

Thought leader example #1: Elon Musk

It is a well-known fact that Elon Musk is favored for more than simply being the CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX. Rather than hiding behind a desk, Elon Musk creates a vision of the future that inspires his customers, employees, and partners. He pulls people into his shared imagination of the future and invites them to be a part of it, which is why he is one of the more prominent thought leadership examples.

His vision for the future was believed to be science fiction up until a few short years ago, but now it is a reality where autonomous vehicles drive us where we want to go, ensuring a safe and efficient ride. Musk made this future relevant by showing how these changes can reduce accidents on the road, improve the flow of traffic, and allow us to use our transit time more effectively. These revolutionary changes and the path that Musk makes for them establish him as an expert in several industries.

Thought leader example #2: Vitalik Buterin

Known as the creator of Ethereum, a blockchain-based open-source computing platform, Vitalik Buterin is a Russian-Canadian programmer who has made decentralized networks and cryptocurrencies his business. At only 28 years old, he is valued at over $1 billion dollars, and he has the following to match. 

Today, he is one of the most trustworthy experts on cryptocurrency, with many people singing his praises and calling him a genius online. This isn’t just because he created a platform that exceeds the expectations of the time, but also because he works to help support the future of cryptocurrency every single day.

Thought leader example #3: David Sacks

David Sacks was the chief operating officer (COO) of the prominent financial technology company, PayPal. As if this title of prestige is not enough, he is also a co-founder of Craft Ventures, a venture capital firm specializing in software as a service (SaaS) and marketplaces.

David Sacks is an obvious leader because of his expertise in providing valuable content around SaaS.

Pairing this with his focus on supporting startups and helping them break into their industries, Sacks demonstrates that he has plenty to offer those around him—and people are always interested in what he has to say. Startup thought leadership is rising in popularity because of the ways that it is already changing the world.

How to become a thought leader

Anyone can become a thought leader, but you will need to focus on a few requirements along the way. There are three prominent factors to consider to becoming a thought leader: expertise, value, and honesty. Let’s explore these concepts further.

Be an expert in your field

It is a common misconception that all thought leaders must be the absolute best in their chosen fields. With that being said, you should know as much as possible about your area of interest. At the very least, a thought leader should be better than most people at something. You should learn enough to have interesting opinions on your niche so that you can share your ideas and help other people understand why these opinions and calls for change are important.

Focus on creating value

Without creating value, a thought leader is just someone who is sharing their opinions. In order to truly lead others in your industry, you must offer significant value with your knowledge and opinions. The kind of value that you offer, however, can change from one person to the next.

There are three primary ways that thought leaders create value: content, products, and services. Any time you create something in any of these categories, you should offer value to your audience. Rather than focusing on how much money you can make, focus on educating and empowering other people in your field.

Speak your truth, even if it’s unpopular

A distinguishing trait that all thought leaders share is a deep focus on honesty. This can be intimidating for some people because it is well-known that the truth is not always popular. Sometimes, the truth can be hard to hear—even when it seems obvious.

Thought leaders are people who lead, and in order to lead, you must be candid about your beliefs. It is something that must be done, even if you know that it will ruffle feathers. Speaking your truth means sharing your opinions and beliefs about your field, backed by knowledge and understanding. Being honest might mean sharing an opinion or addressing something that no one else in your industry wants to acknowledge. These hard truths can often drive the most change.

black and blue portable speaker

Takeaway: Thought leadership helps people make sense of the future

When thought leaders step up to share their education and opinions with their peers, they help us make sense of the future, which can have lasting, positive effects in fields across every industry. New industries, existing industries, and future industries are all created and adopted by powerful thought leaders who look to the future and see all its potential.

While being a thought leader does allow us to improve our respective fields, it can also be a valuable tool for a variety of people who are looking to find success in business. Entrepreneurs, business leaders, and marketers alike should all strive to be thought leaders that encourage change and growth in their industries. It is a way to gain trust and show your support for your field at the same time.

Want to see how thought leadership fits into your startups? Check out our guide on SEO content marketing for startups!

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