How to be a thought leader

Paper airplanes

Thought leadership has become a corporate holy grail, as brands strive for purpose and seek to engage with the community on social issues – from calling out racism and sexism to supporting sustainability.

I receive a stream of inquiries from executives who want to be thought leaders, not all understand what thought leadership is. It sounds simple, but it often needs to be clarified that thought leadership must include a unique thought and show leadership.

There are significant risks and rewards in play, boosting leaders’ personal brands has tangible benefits, including driving consumer behaviour. An Edleman thought leadership impact study found 75 per cent of decision-makers followed and organisation or individual because of their thought leadership, but 60 per cent will stop following a thought leader if they publish poor quality content.

Thought leadership isn’t a summary of industry development or marketing for a brand or product. It’s instigating or joining the debate, so it needs to have perspective and make a case.

Pieces can be broadcast through a variety of channels, it could be an email to staff, a speech to a conference, a LinkedIn post or featured on social channels or company website.

The most impactful thought leadership is published by a credible external outlet, with a wide and relevant audience. Ideally, this should be amplified by reposting through social and other channels.

Getting an ‘opinion piece’ published in a mainstream publication is difficult, space is tight and competition intense. The vast majority of those submitted are not published, many may not even be read by opinion editors.

A strong thought leadership piece should be well written and engaging, grabbing a reader’s attention from the start. They should start strong and build a case, and include some form of a call to action.

It should be relevant, topical and written from a perspective of expertise and experience with the topic. Here are five takeaways on how to approach them:

Be opinionated. The piece needs to take a position, criticise when it’s deserved and advocate for action. Editors want pieces that confront and spark debate, and explain why the reader should care about your argument.

It’s not marketing. People hate corporate promotion. Direct references to the brand should be minimised. The benefit comes from being seen to be a voice of authority and insight.

Be topical and timely. What is the hot topic in your area? Respond to an unfolding debate, announcement or controversy, but make it quick and timely.

Call to action. What are you saying should change, what needs to be done? If you are pointing out a problem, what’s your solution?

Avoid jargon. Remove technical terms non-specialists may not recognise. Ban acronyms.

Some great examples of thought leadership from our clients through guidance from Icon Reputation below:

Here are some examples of thought leadership we have assisted:

Schneider Electric


By Mark Forbes, Director of Icon Reputation

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