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  • Writer's pictureStefano Calvetti

How to be a Thought Leader

In the vast ocean of professional expertise, thought leadership stands as a beacon, guiding others through the complexities of their respective fields. But what exactly does it mean to be a thought leader, and how can one navigate the journey to becoming one?

A hyperrealistic painting of a ship sailing in uncharted waters, with bright colors and contrast. The ship has a large white sail with a blue star on it, and a red flag on the mast. The water is calm and clear, reflecting the sky and the ship. The sky is blue with white clouds and a yellow sun. The horizon is empty, suggesting an unknown destination. The image conveys the idea of thought leadership as exploring new possibilities and leading the way.
Thought leadership is knowledge and foresight

The Essence of Thought Leadership

Thought leadership is more than just being knowledgeable; it’s about being a visionary in your field. It involves understanding the currents of your industry and predicting where they might flow next. Like a seasoned captain reading the waves, a thought leader anticipates changes and guides others through uncharted waters.


Drawing parallels from my time in the Navy, I’ll share insights into what thought leadership entails and how you can chart your course toward becoming a guiding light in your niche.


The Thought Leader as a Captain

My experiences on the sea have taught me invaluable lessons about leadership that beautifully translate into the realm of thought leadership.


  • Understanding the Terrain: before entering a port, the Captain of a ship must understand the trend of the seabed, currents, signals, pier orientation, tides, and much more. Similarly, a thought leader must deeply understand their field. This includes its history, current trends, and future possibilities. Continuous learning and staying abreast of new developments are crucial.

  • Guiding Through Storms: During a storm, a ship’s crew looks to the Captain for guidance to avoid unpleasant and dangerous situations. In the same way, people seek thought leaders for insights and direction in industry upheaval or uncertainty. The ability to provide clarity and perspective during turbulent times is a hallmark of authentic thought leadership.

  • Charting New Courses: Every grand sea voyage involves exploring new routes. Great Captains like Vespucci, Columbus, and Magellan inspire new generations of sailors for their bravery and push to go beyond what is known. In the business industry, many are inspired by visionary leaders like Steve Jobs, with his foresight in consumer technology, Jeff Bezos in e-commerce innovation, and Richard Branson in diversifying business ventures. Thought leaders must chart new courses, offering innovative ideas and solutions. It’s about pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo.


Lessons from the helm

Reflecting on my podcast, “When Leaders Talk,” I recall numerous instances where thought leadership was akin to skillfully navigating the sea.


There is one episode, among many, that I want to highlight. In the memorable conversation with Jason Castriota, a prominent designer in the automobile industry, he beautifully explains how his open-minded approach to innovation allowed him to reach success in a competitive environment like that of luxury cars. His ability to predict trends and adapt made him a thought leader, like a captain anticipating and navigating in tricky shallow waters.


My journey in leadership coaching is similar to navigating a ship through calm and tumultuous seas. Evolving my coaching techniques to the ever-changing needs of the people I coach has been my way of embodying thought leadership in my field.


Your journey

Embarking on your voyage to thought leadership involves a few key steps:

  • Build your compass: identify your niche. What are you passionate about? What expertise can you offer? What subject do you never tire of reading about and learning about?

  • Recruit your crew: Cultivate a network of peers, mentors, and followers. Engage with them regularly to share insights and learn from each other. Diversity is a crucial element in gaining different perspectives and intuitions.

  • Bring everyone on board: Don’t be jealous of what you have learned. Share your knowledge through blogs, podcasts, videos, or social media. Consistent, quality content is your vessel in the journey of thought leadership.

  • Navigate wisely: Be open to new ideas and willing to change course when necessary. Adaptability and humbleness are crucial in the ever-changing waters of industry and thought.

Beware of the treacherous waters.

If you have read other posts on my blog, you know that there is a concept I often repeat: being a good leader is no easy job. Being a thought leader, either. Navigating uncharted water is intrinsically dangerous:


  • Promoting unsubstantiated ideas: a thought leader might gain attention by advocating for trendy but unproven or scientifically unsupported ideas. This can lead to their followers making ill-informed decisions, potentially causing harm.

  • Failing to adapt or acknowledge mistakes: a self-proclaimed thought leader might stick rigidly to their initial ideas, even in the face of new evidence or changing circumstances, leading followers down a no longer viable or beneficial path.

  • Lack of ethical considerations: thought leadership prioritizing profit, fame, or personal gain over ethical considerations can lead to adverse outcomes, including promoting harmful products or practices or exploiting followers’ trust.

  • Echo chambers and confirmation bias: leaders who only share and promote ideas that align with their own can create echo chambers without critically engaging with or acknowledging alternative perspectives. This limits the growth and adaptability that authentic thought leadership should foster.

  • Overemphasis on personal branding: focusing more on building a personal brand rather than genuinely contributing to the field can lead to superficial or misleading content lacking depth and genuine insight.

  • Misleading or manipulative tactics: using thought leadership status to manipulate followers for personal or financial gain, primarily through fearmongering, misinformation, or high-pressure tactics.

  • Lack of authenticity: Thought leadership that is more about following trends or mimicking other successful leaders rather than offering original, authentic insights can lead to a loss of trust and credibility.

An example above all is Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.

Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, at the time of the verdict.
When thought leadership doesn't work: Elizabeth Holmes

Once celebrated as a visionary in the healthcare technology sector, Holmes founded Theranos with the promise of revolutionizing blood testing through innovative technology that could perform a wide range of lab analyses with just a few drops of blood. However, it was later revealed that the technology was flawed and did not deliver as promised. Despite severe technical shortcomings while testing her project, Holmes maintained an image of confidence and success. Theranos operated with high levels of secrecy, preventing scrutiny that might have exposed issues earlier.


The misrepresentation led to numerous legal and ethical issues. Holmes was charged with massive fraud, leading to a conviction and a sentence of more than 11 years in prison.


Unfortunately, her actions impacted many beyond her: investors lost hundreds of millions of dollars, employees’ careers were impacted, and patients received incorrect health information.


The Theranos case is a stark reminder of how thought leadership without a foundation of truth, transparency, and integrity can lead to disastrous outcomes.


Conclusion

Just as every successful sea voyage contributes to the captain’s reputation, each step you take in sharing your knowledge and insights builds your profile as a thought leader. It’s a journey whose perils can be overcome by continuous growth, learning, integrity, and influence.


Are you ready to set sail?




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