Management / Denise Brosseau: What is a thought leader?

Denise Brosseau: What is a thought leader?

Some people use the term “thought leader” as if all you have to do to earn that moniker is to start tweeting. This is hardly the case. Individuals with expertise, passion and a track record of changing the world become thought leaders when they rise above themselves by sharing their knowledge so others can change the world too.

Many thought leaders start as leaders of an initiative, programme, company or organisation. In that role, they see the need for a change – a different future than would otherwise occur – not just in their workplace or community, but much more broadly. They feel a calling to bring about that change - often regardless of the odds and despite any setbacks and challenges.

To bring about the future they envision, they may step into a broader role as a convener or participant in an advisory committee, task force, industry consortium or professional association. They may advocate for new legislation or modifications to existing regulations that impact an industry as a whole – not just benefit their own company. Others take to a “bully pulpit” by writing op-eds, crafting white papers, etc. They argue for a fundamental rethinking of an entire process - not just incremental change.

To be most effective, thought leaders will document their ideas into frameworks, training models, blueprints or methodologies – and share them widely. They create models that are easy to understand so their ideas can be shared widely and others can build on their efforts.

Their goal is to influence, inspire and enrol others to join them in order to create sustainable change. At the broadest possible level, they realise that the change they are advocating is only possible when they create a regional, national or global movement around their ideas. Their goal is to empower many others to campaign for the same cause.

Thought leaders are everywhere

There are thought leaders all around us. In Boston, Robin Chase co-founded one of the first car sharing companies, Zipcar, but soon realised that car sharing was only one piece of the larger challenge of global climate change. She went on to work closely with legislators and city governments to institute transportation policy changes, wrote op-eds calling on the Big Three car companies to introduce major modifications in emissions technology, and wrote a book, Peers, Inc., calling for a more collaborative economy and even a reinvention of capitalism. Today, she speaks before audiences of thousands, encouraging everyone to modify their individual actions in order to impact global climate change before it is too late.

In Los Angeles, artist Ron Finley planted a garden on a strip of dirt in his front yard. When he received a notice that he was not authorised to create a garden on city land, he began an advocacy effort to overturn this ruling and eventually pushed the city to open up vacant lots in deprived neighborhoods for many more community gardens. Today, he styles himself as the “Guerilla Gardener” and has started a national movement to increase access to fresh food in low-income communities.

In San Francisco, Van Ton-Quinlivan took a new role in HR in a 100-year-old utility company. She became a change agent within her organisation to increase the diversity of her company workplace and sparked change across her industry with a unique industry-community partnership called PowerPathway. She built a consortium of other HR leaders who could share best practices and work together to implement PowerPathway more broadly. Later she was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate on workforce issues, and eventually the company gained recognition from the White House for their efforts. Van was then recruited by the governor to lead workforce efforts across the state as the vice chancellor for workforce for the 113 California community colleges. She continues to engage nationally to bring about public-private partnerships and legislative change to increase access to educational pathways to well-paid jobs for disadvantaged and diverse workers.

Robin, Ron and Van are changing the world by creating a blueprint for others to follow. As they codify guidelines, methods, processes or a set of best practices they enable others to follow in their footsteps and build on their success. These are the creations of a thought leader. What will you do to become a thought leader this year?

Want more stories of influencers to inspire you? Visit my website and download my Thought Leadership Manifesto.

brosseauDenise Brosseau is CEO of Thought Leadership Lab, the author of Ready to Be a Thought Leader? (Wiley/Jossey-Bass) and a lecturer at the Stanford Business School. After an early career in the technology industry, Denise co-founded Springboard Enterprises, an accelerator programme for women entrepreneurs that has led to more than $7 billion (£5 billion) in capital for 627 companies. She has been recognised by the White House as a Champion of Change.


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