About Thought Leadership

What it is, what it means, and how to achieve it.

Linda M. Lopeke
3 min readMar 29, 2022
Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

Last week, I came across someone who defined thought leadership as “sharing your thoughts” without apologizing so you can make more money. However, true thought leadership has much greater substance than that.

While there often is a correlation with profitability in one’s business, you don’t have to be a thought leader to be successful. Indeed, few individuals have what it takes to develop thought leadership.


The concept has been with us since the late 19th century, the term having been first used by Henry Ward Beecher (1887). As happens with many “labels” its meaning, implication and contextual usage has evolved over time.

Following a recent resurgence of interest in thought leadership, the term has (sadly) become bastardized and shamelessly exploited by wannabes who, more often than not, have little to no evidence to justify their claim to it.


Where marketing is a conversation you’re having with strangers, thought leadership can distinguish you as either the subject of the conversation or as an influential contributor to it.

Thought leadership helps start a relationship where none exists and enhances relationships you already have. It should be an entry point to a relationship that intrigues, challenges, and inspires even those who are already familiar with you and your work.


A thought leader is a person who stands in the intersection of subject matter expert (logos), social influencer (ethos) and key opinion leader (pathos).

True thought leaders have five things in common (not a full list of shared characteristics, just the easily identifiable ones):

1) they have direct experience and demonstrated professional expertise in a specific area with ongoing involvement in (or awareness of) their field, industry and/or area of specialization

2) they consistently demonstrate their ability to clearly communicate challenging new ideas

3) they are sharing ideas backed up with data and original research

4) they take a clear stand (for/against) and hold strong points of view that set them apart and distinguish them from other experts in the field

5) their credibility is achieved and continually enhanced over time arising from a combination of past experiences, current standing, recognition of professional achievements, endorsements from others for their work, and a growing reputation for it as well as having a supportive following for their body of work

It helps if you’re a likable person with interesting content. And, while you don’t have to incite conflict or controversy to be seen as a thought leader, you must be someone who doesn’t shy away from it (or criticism) either.

You don’t need the whole world to embrace your opinions and others will disagree with you, but you do need people who follow and believe in you to further support your credibility.

You can’t call yourself a thought leader unless you want to show the world how clearly you are not. (It’s a label bestowed on you by respected others.)

There are no shortcuts on the road to thought leadership. But SMARTSTART helps you get there. It is a path many of my own clients are on and a great joy for me to be able to help them put solid marketing and media relations strategies in place for earning this recognition.