Ever been in a meeting like this? The whole team is stuck trying to solve a problem, but one person has the insight to recommend a surprising solution, a new opportunity, a direction never before considered, and that contribution made all the difference? That’s the result of thought leadership. Developing this powerful skill will separate you from the rest of the pack. So what is thought leadership, and what positions someone to be perceived as a thought leader? 

Thought leaders are people who passionately consume information about their industries and business overall. They are endlessly curious, and they have an ability to connect the dots on all of the ideas and concepts in interesting and unusual ways, giving them a unique point of view. Thought leaders can see things other people can’t. No, it’s not X-Ray vision for the business. Instead, that enhanced capacity comes from the habit of constant knowledge acquisition. It gives them the fuel to make observations and recommendations that are typically spot on, and it’s how they build a reputation for being the person everyone turns to for new and unique perspectives. Thought leaders are high-value assets. They can draw accurate conclusions from trends and seemingly unrelated events. They can interpret and anticipate market challenges early. They can identify potential and risk far in advance. That’s how thought leaders give their organizations a major competitive advantage. 

Here’s an example. David was a manager with a large insurance company in 2003. Besides reading industry journals, he kept up with publications for the automobile industry and the technology world. He was fascinated by the advances being made toward the development of self-driving cars. At the time, that concept still seemed like something from The Jetsons, an idea that wouldn’t materialize until much later in the 21st century. It certainly wasn’t a current topic of interest for his company, but David began to wonder if the delivery timeline could end up being much shorter because of the exponential pace of advances in technology. He made some preliminary calculations about the impact of self-driving cars on the insurance industry and confidently approached top executives with some proactive recommendations. David set himself apart by recognizing a potential threat and developing an early strategy, one that would help his company remain in the driver’s seat, with revenue, even when the customers started moving to the back seat. Bottom line, organizations recognize the enormous value of people like David, and they reward them. So how can you take steps to begin developing yourself as a thought leader? Become an expert in your industry. Study it, know how the market started. 

The evolution of customer needs, the competitive landscape. Consistently read industry publications and trade journals. Attend conferences and workshops to stay current. Make broad knowledge and acquisition part of your career strategy. Add to your reading list with general business publications, professional journals, books, online resources, even TED Talks, and when you find interesting content, forward it to your colleagues with a quick note about how this might impact or benefit your organization. Share your perspective. Analyze studies and data to help determine factors that influence customer satisfaction and preferences. Look for potential trends, risks, and opportunities, then elevate the impact of the data by sharing your own perspective and interpretation of the results, drawing conclusions and pointing out implications.

Network with people who can broaden your horizons. Expand the way you think about interacting with colleagues who have different areas of expertise, and varying approaches. As you participate in professional and industry organizations, remain open to learn about unconventional strategies, and be the person to connect your team members with outside experts who can demonstrate original thinking. Establishing yourself as a thought leader won’t happen overnight. It takes time. But if you put in the effort, you’ll become the person in the meeting who sees an opportunity when no one else can.