What is a thought leader? According to Forbes, thought leaders are: “… recognized as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise. A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.” (source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/russprince/2012/03/16/what-is-a-thought-leader/)

What qualifies someone as a thought leader? They are frequently sought out by their industry peers for strategy, coaching, advice, mentoring and innovation. Other leading indicators are that they are often keynote speakers at big industry conferences or events. Thought leaders tend to publish white papers, presentations or research that are virally downloaded, consumed and digested. In short, they are “go to” sources for best practices in their respective industry or area of expertise.

Beware the Charlatan! There are too many self-proclaimed thought leaders out there today. If you have to anoint yourself as a thought leader, chances are that you are not a true thought leader.  True thought leaders are afforded the moniker by earning it. They don’t necessarily seek attention from their peers, rather they attract it by bringing innovative ideas and best practices to the table.

They may not be on social media… Paradoxically, some of the best thought leaders in the world actually shun social media. That’s right, I said they shun social media. They don’t have LinkedIn or Facebook profiles. They don’t Tweet. They don’t measure themselves on the number of fans, comments, likes or retweets they have on social media. That doesn’t make them introverts, it simply means that they consider the social media masses to be superficial in nature, and quite frankly, a tad boring.

How do they think of themselves? If you ask most true thought leaders to describe themselves, interestingly enough you’ll hear that they often describe themselves as perpetual students with a particular passion. What’s curious is that those who are most qualified to teach and admired will tell you that they are in fact lifelong students and obsess over learning more and deeper every day in their field or area of expertise. They tend to be much more humble than the aforementioned “Charlatans” and love to share their experiences and lesson learned. They almost consider the sharing of knowledge and experiences to be an obligation and a way of giving back to the community that they are part of and love.

Who teaches the thought leaders? Here’s the gotcha…thought leaders learn from you and me. You probably had visions of some soft-spoken monk in flowing robes on a remote mountaintop dispensing the meaning of life advice to a young protégé in a seminal moment with classical music playing in the background. And that would be wrong:-) Thought leaders learn from their peers, competitors, families, children, friends, pets and everyday experiences. The distinction is that they see things in their everyday experiences that others don’t.

How do they learn? They learn from their observation and personal experiences.  They tend to think about things much deeper and longer than anyone else. Thought leaders have well developed discernment capabilities and the ability to glean insight through their observations and experiences that others can’t.  They constantly obsess and challenge themselves to think of better ways to do things. They look for new ideas and innovation. They are not afraid to admit what they don’t know and seek others that do know. They learn by asking really smart questions. They learn by listening, observing and discerning at a level of depth that most of us mere mortals simply are not capable of. They test their theories and assertions and admit when they are wrong. They learn by constantly challenging themselves to be better and seeking those that have discovered better ways.

How do you determine whether they are a true thought leader or charlatan? By asking smart questions, listening/discerning carefully and conducting due diligence on them. Here are some smart questions to get you started:

  • How would you describe yourself?
  • What is your experience in your particular field or area of expertise?
  • What qualifies you as an expert in your field?
  • What is your biggest professional failure? What did you learn from that?
  • How do you learn?
  • Who do you consider as your professional mentors?
  • What don’t you know about in your field that you’d really like to know?
  • Who do you consider to be true innovators in your field? Why?
  • What would your advice be for someone brand new to your professional field or are of expertise?
  • If you could start your career all over again in the same field, what would you do differently?

Leading “Charlatan” indicators:

  • People who speak at every major industry conference for years running with repurposed content but nothing fresh or innovative
  • People who prodigiously publish research, white papers or books and lose touch with real world practitioners and what’s currently happening in their field
  • Poor listeners
  • Talk over people constantly
  • Don’t ask smart or any questions
  • Always act as if they are smarter than everyone else in the room
  • Constantly use cliché buzzwords, acronyms and expressions
  • Tell old war stories that are dated and not relevant anymore
  • Never help or give back to their community
  • Everything is viewed through their profit lens

Open disclaimer, I’m not a big proponent of the term thought leader. Please share your thoughts on thought leaders and your experiences with them!