From Thought Leader to Big Idea Expert

If there’s one buzzword I’d like to take back from the gatekeepers (whomever they are), it’s “thought leadership.” 

The term conjures up images of larger than life business gurus preaching to their superfans in packed arenas. And nine out of ten of those images (at least in my mind) are of white dudes running around on stage, shouting into a headset mic with a giant screen behind them. These dudes have done little to gain such fame besides being just egomaniacal enough to call themselves thought leaders.

It would be one thing if calling yourself a thought leader were enough to gain anyone such a following. But we all know that “head thought leader” is only a magical phrase for some people.

I’d really like to take back the term because I’m tired of only certain people being allowed into the club and I’m tired of those certain people posting an idea that’s not in the least novel or interesting and claiming they are a thought leader because of it.

In my world, you need to show me you can think before I’ll believe you’re a thought leader—or my current preferred term, “big idea expert.” So how do we take back this term and shine the spotlight on those who have truly earned their authority?

Here are three areas where I’m focusing my efforts:

  • I want to invite big idea experts, who are also members of traditionally underrepresented or misrepresented groups, to the table. 
  • I want to create a safe space to share thoughtful, galvanizing ideas that challenge entrenched ideas.
  • I want to create and disseminate and teach others how to create and disseminate content that enhances, rather than diminishes choice. 

In this blog article, I’m going to start to unpack this game plan. These are new ideas for me, so much of what I have to say is in flux. I’ll try my best not to contradict myself in the future, but I do reserve the right to change my mind. Let’s dig in!

What’s Thought Leadership Anyway?

Before we get to how I’m thinking about thought leadership these days, I want to look into the origins of the term. If you do a Google search for “who first coined the term thought leadership?,” you will find plenty of people saying that American economist and Editor-in-Chief of Strategy + Business magazine, Joel Kurzman first used the term in 1994. 

Allegedly, Kurzman wrote, “Thought Leaders are those people who possess a distinctively original idea, a unique point of view, or an unprecedented insight into their industry.” Also, allegedly, he used the term to refer to people “who had business ideas that merited attention.”

Now, I say “allegedly” because I haven’t been able to track down the original source of Kurzman’s quotes. All the articles I could find that reference Kurzman as being the inventor of thought leadership fail to cite the source or link to other articles without a source. His Wikipedia page says he coined the term, but the link to the source is a “permanent dead link.” So I’ll have to get back to you on this. 

But because I take transparency seriously and because I have a responsibility to acknowledge my lineage, I can tell you who my influences are. Most of what I think about thought leadership has been influenced by:

While I do agree with most of what Kurzman allegedly said about thought leadership—thought leaders have original ideas, a unique point of view, and business ideas that merit attention—I want to emphasize the ideation piece.

Earlier I said I prefer the term “big idea expert” to “thought leader.” To me big idea experts:

  • Have original ideas
  • Have a unique point of view
  • Have business ideas that merit attention AND
  • Take a seat at the table (even if it’s not immediately offered)
  • Earn their authority because their ideas are actually innovative
  • Are driven by big ideas, recognizing that the ideas are in the driver’s seat
  • Want to connect people with ideas and get up every morning hungry to do so

These are the people I want to work with. I want to help subject matter experts (SMEs) become big idea experts (BIEs) by cultivating their thought leadership ecosystems. In the next two sections, I start to think about how to make this happen.

Making the World Safe for Big Idea Experts

What is the biggest difference between a subject matter expert (SME) and a big idea expert (BIE)? To answer this question, all you have to do is consider the difference between your college Psychology professor and Brene Brown.

Being an SME will land you a great industry job. It will certainly help you secure a teaching position, if that’s what you want. But your income is capped and the amount of influence you have will be limited. In other words, you can be an SME and be the best kept secret in your industry.

By contrast, BIEs know how to leverage the power of their ideas. They understand how to connect people and ideas. They figure out how to raise their own profiles and gain more influence. As a result, the sky’s the limit for BIEs. 

Yes, to move from being your college Psychology professor to becoming the next Brene Brown, you’ll need to get better at personal branding. You’ll need to come up with a strategy for disseminating your big ideas. BUT—and this is key—what you think of as “influencer” marketing is not the way to raise your profile.

I know this may sound confusing because I’m talking about how SMEs can gain more influence and I’m suggesting that “influencer” marketing is not the way. That’s because BIEs are not “influencers,” at least not in the “I’m going to be a TikTok influencer,” as all the kids seem to aspire to today. Influencers need to create tons of content because they want high volume traffic. To get the amount of content they need to raise their profiles as influencers and go viral, either the quality of their content suffers or they focus on creating shock marketing.

But this approach won’t work to raise the profile of SMEs, which you’re probably thinking is a good thing if you’re an SME. This means that you don’t have to “dumb down” your content or use icky shock marketing tactics to get your big ideas across. 

Instead of using influencer marketing to disseminate your ideas, you can lean into what you do best, IDEATION. So if you feel shy about sharing your quirky, cool, and weird ideas, I really want you to get brave and stop underestimating the power of the content you’re keeping locked away in that big, brilliant brain of yours.   

If you hate marketing and personal branding, the bad news is that BIEs do need to market themselves, but the good news is that they can lean all the way into the type of marketing that works for thought leaders. Let’s see what that might look like.

6 Weeks to Becoming a Big Idea Expert

If you’ve ever had the thought that you can’t share your expert ideas as marketing because it’s not “catchy” or “jaw-dropping,” etc., you’re making an assumption that you need to rethink. You’re thinking like an influencer and seeing your marketing audience as completely separate from your expert audience.

Instead, think of all of your audiences as part of your thought leadership ecosystem. You can talk to both experts and lay audiences without having to dumb down your content, but you will have to figure out what type of content will connect with the audience you’re in front of. 

To make the shift, think about reorienting your expert content for a different audience with different needs and expectations. This means that repurposing can happen, but you need to think of the content for lay audiences as being inspired by your other content. For example, you’re not going to edit that expert article down for clients. You’re going to ask what in your expert article would be of interest to your client and start there. 

It might seem like more work, but it’s actually less work than trying to turn a 9,000 word academic article into a presentation for inventors or trying to turn a Psychology lecture into a podcast episode. 

When you consider what ideas will best stick with your audience, you are doing marketing for thought leaders. As an SME, this likely comes naturally to you because you’re a natural teacher. This is precisely what will take you from SME to BIE.

At PPhD, we’re in the business of transforming SMEs into BIEs. When you start working with us, the first thing we’ll do is spend six weeks capturing your voice and brainstorming with you about your big ideas.

Here’s our process:

  1. Personalized LinkedIn Roadmap: We start by taking a look at your LinkedIn profile and developing a thought leadership strategy for short-form content.
  2. Personalized content dashboard: Then we create your content dashboard in Notion, so we can keep track of the changes we want to start implementing with you.
  3. 1 x 90 minute ideation session: Next, we spend 90 minutes ideating with you to brainstorm, recognize, and identify your best thought leadership.
  4. Custom Fascination Report: We also have you take Sally Hogshead’s Fascination Advantage Assessment so we can gather even more data about what makes you tick.
  5. 3 x LinkedIn posts (short-form): We create three short-form posts for you.
  6. 1 x blog post (long-form): We create one long-form blog or article for you.
  7. Strategic Plan for Phase 2: Finally, we come up with a strategy for the next phase of your expert transformation.

I’m excited to see where this new thinking around thought leadership and transforming SMEs into BIEs will take us and our clients. It’s an exciting time to be building something new and doubling down on what’s working.

If you’re picking up what I’m laying down, let’s chat! You know what to do. 

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