Thought leadership

Illustration of people carrying objects upstairs

Credit: Illustration by Mikela Buttingol

For aspiring leaders today, it's no longer enough to simply be great at your job. You need to demonstrate innovative thinking, using public speaking, social media posts, videos, and op-eds to inspire others. This is a communications strategy commonly known as thought leadership.

But sadly, much of the thought leadership I read today is mushy oatmeal. Many people are so determined to sell their brands that they forget to talk about what matters most to their audience.

Fortunately, the situation isn't hopeless. If someone is truly an expert in their field, and they follow a few steps, they can convey valuable thought leadership. From my experience working in journalism and opinion writing, here are four pointers I've found helpful:

First, don't try to be too smart. Instead, let yourself be free to write down whatever ideas come to mind—even the seemingly silly ones. For instance, I originally thought of starting this article by talking about how hard it was for me to come up with a topic for it. When I started writing, however, I realized this was confusing. That was fine, though, because it led me to find a clearer way of explaining myself. That's what you're reading right now.

Second, put yourself in someone else's shoes. You need to demonstrate through your writing that you know how to connect with the people who care about your work. If you think about what is important to them, you'll more easily come up with topics they want to read.

Third, just Google it. I can't count how many times I've woken up with the next big idea, only to find out after searching that 79 others had thought of it first. That doesn't automatically mean you shouldn't write about it, though. If you're not in love with the quality of those other articles, or if you feel you can offer something new, jump in anyway.

This last step should absolutely not be skipped, though it often is: Talk to your critics. If you never let anyone scrutinize your ideas, you're just afraid of hearing the truth. Plus, the process of talking through your ideas with someone almost always leads to a more interesting result.

The pressure to create thought–provoking content generates so much anxiety that many people don't even bother with thought leadership. But they should, so long as they follow a defined process. It's much better—and more exciting—to try to join the conversation than to just sit on the sidelines and watch.

Jake Meth, A&S '10, is the founder of Opinioned, an op-ed writing and strategy firm. He previously built and edited the commentary section at Fortune.

Posted in Alumni

Tagged alumni, opinion, afterwords