Practicing Thought Leadership

Therapists will often make a distinction between the statements “you are a bad person” and “you are a person who did a bad thing.” That dovetails very nicely with this article up on Brainpickings called “Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives” [Definite recommend!]

I think similarly when it comes to “being a thought leader” versus “practicing thought leadership”. One is a point in time and it doesn’t allow room for ‘freshman stances’, i.e., being a novice. The other is an active thing, akin to another tool to keep in your workshop; it’s a skill that can be taught, can be mastered, and will always have room for growth. It’s something anyone can do given time, some effort, and a bit of attention. 

Still, “thought leadership” is one of those pretty, sanitized, consultant/resume buzzwords/phrases that is hard to place a real definition on. What is it and how does one actually go about practicing it? We’ll answer those two things together.

1. Have thoughts and share them.
Either that’s the snarkiest thing I’ve ever said on this blog (doubtful) or it’s an incredibly radical idea. It is neither; it’s just true. Seriously, have thoughts.

“Having thoughts” is more than just having a passing idea that appears between your ears and quickly dissipates back from whence it came, pushed aside by distractions of traffic, commuting, raising kids, e-mail notifications, conference calls, etc. Having thoughts means:

a) Taking the time/space to really think on things and register your reactions, feelings, analyses, and considerations about it.

b) Somehow sharing that with others – whether it’s as a side point in a relevant meeting, a quick IM you dash off to a co-worker, notes on your whiteboard, fitted into a footnote in a slide presentation, collaborating on a white paper with a colleague…

You can’t practice thought leadership without having thoughts to share and actually sharing them.

2. Read.
Or watch. Or listen. Or smell, even (depends on what you do for work)! In other words, open up your senses to the world outside of your day-in/day-out. Why? Because thoughts, great ideas, while they can come from things that have already happened, they often don’t come from the things that have already happened within your daily, routine space of which you are often deeply inattentive towards. My friends can tell you – perhaps even kvetch about it – how often my sentences start with phrases like:

  • “I read in this article this week or last week?”
  • “I was listening to this thing on…”
  • “I used to read/play this thing…”
  • “When I took [x] class…”

And so on and so forth. I am a voracious reader; I have read the back of a tube of toothpaste. (Deeply boring dreck). Google Chrome is like a drug for me because of the number of slick, simultaneous windows it allows me to have and shift around my desktop and its recoverability when I inevitably freeze up my system. My BN Nook always has something new on it; and sometimes I re-read things old with different eyes and I get something else out of it. I have sticky notes in random places, things scribbled on my two whiteboards, various notebooks in which the narrative weaves in and out with work lists, and commentary, and doodles, and…

Read. Watch. Listen. Touch. Taste. Smell. Be open to taking things in and letting them percolate in the background. It will pay off.

3. Be interested in everything.
This goes hand-in-hand with the above. Being open is a receptive pose; being interested is the active pose and they are concomitant. Get your hands dirty and learn something new. It may not seem to relate to your day job – it never does – but you’ll never know until you get into something. Dig, dig deep. Don’t settle for the surface. Get underneath and wrestle with subjects and functions. Be interested and honestly, it becomes easier and easier to have things to talk about, to have thoughts on and to share because you’ll be excited.

4. Practicing thought leadership should be exciting!
The exclamation point was necessary because do you remember the last time you had a light bulb moment? When something, particularly something that may have seemed hard or confounding, just clicked? When you had an idea or learned something new that felt like it opened up a whole new pathway to you? Wasn’t it exciting? Didn’t you glow? You couldn’t wait to share it; you were practically vibrating with energy!

That is the space in where thought leadership lies; that is the space in which you can practice it. I’m not saying that every day you’re going to have a eureka moment or you’re going to turn into Einstein. Not at all. What I am saying is that you can take steps, you can prepare yourself, you can do the deeper thinking, build up the muscles, stretch yourself out, and all of that creates the space for you to practice thought leadership.

So, tell me this, which would you prefer?

a) To “be thought leader” and therefore always having to prove / re-prove that position, that title, or

b) To “practice thought leadership” and therefore always ready to have new and different opportunities to learn, to share, and to grow?

Let me go into my workshop for this answer…

As a child I took classical piano lessons for more than 15 years there is a particular phrase from my piano teacher that has always stuck in my head:

Practice. Practice. Practice.


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