The 4 Parts of Thought Leadership

On the home page of my website, I say “You have the power to shape the world through your work.”

It is a bold statement, but one I take very seriously.

With your one pass at life here on earth, you can choose to build, ignite or shape something that will change or improve some aspect of the way we live, work and relate to each other. In that choice, you have to know what values you hold, so that you choose something that is deeply meaningful to you personally, as well as impactful to those you care about.

I think about “thought leadership” in this context.

It is a clunky term, in need of a suitable replacement, but in the absence of such, I define it in The Widest Net as:

“Your specific point of view about how to solve the problem defined in your mission and ideal customer description.”

Here are some examples of thought leadership in action from folks I have worked with:

Emad Georgy is passionate about creating great leadership cultures in IT organizations. His point of view is that culture is not just driven by individual leaders, it is a reflection of multiple, interrelated areas of technology health. To this end, he has created the G-Technology Score, a patent-pending global standard for technology health.

Heather Krause, founder of We All Count, realized that there were some huge gaps in her field of data science, often impacting the most marginalized folks in the world. Her point of view was that this problem needed to be worked on from four different project pieces: The community, the science, the training and the work. The approach at We All Count is clearly spelled out and reflected in every aspect of her organization’s offerings and education.

Charlie Gilkey is passionate about helping creative professionals and organizations who employ them create great work in a way that is personally meaningful and sustainable. His point of view shared through programs, books and coaching at Productive Flourishing do not push a hustle culture narrative of “productivity above all else,” but rather an inclusive, holistic way to get work done.

Melody Lewis and Turquoise Devereaux are passionate about amplifying indigenous truth, values, resiliency, and validation through connection, ability, and collaboration. Their point of view at their consulting firm Indigenous CC is to provide programs and services to Tribal communities and Nonprofits that impact Indigenous Communities by establishing a shared language that encompasses indigenous perspectives and how that aligns to westernize systems. An example of this is the recently opened Cahokia, “an indigenous-led platform for creative placekeeping.”

The 4 parts of thought leadership

So how do you start to think about and build your own thought leadership in the new year?

Your thought leadership develops in four parts:

Part 1: Clearly define the problem

In my field of training and development, we spend a lot of time making sure we understand the problem to be solved, before we design solutions.

When I was a management consultant 15 years ago, I would receive requests for “people training” from organizational leaders.

As we dug in to diagnose the actual problem to be solved, sometimes it was lack of skill or knowledge, but other times it was lack of leadership accountability or the lack of organizational systems.

Before building a body of work around solutions, make sure you take time to diagnose what problem you are actually solving.

Part 2: Identify your point of view about how it should be solved

Once you dial into a problem you are excited to contribute some solutions to, you want to reflect on your point of view.

What is your theory of change, that is, the detailed ways you think the problem should be solved?

Your point of view is informed by your lived experience, your values, your understanding of your craft and a deep relationship with those you work with.

This point of view can be a highly valuable and complementary perspective that helps others in your field support their clients. This is solves the problem that many worry about when stepping into a crowded field:

“But there are already a lot of really smart people helping people solve this problem. Why would they listen to me?”

Yes. That is the right question to ask. Why would they listen to you?

They would listen to you because your point of view provides a unique and important perspective that may fill a gap that others miss, may provide a solution that is relevant to a group of people with unique needs, or may be communicated in a way they find supportive or entertaining.

Part 3: Test ideas and approaches in the real world

Jeff Unsicker was my professor in International Service and Development, my major in college. Before we went on mandatory study abroad in our sophomore year, he drew two images on the chalkboard.

“The first, ” he said as he drew a nice, straight line across the board, “is the way you think things are going to go on your field study projects, based on your organized idea of classroom theory.”

He paused.

“This,” he said while drawing a wild, messy squiggle all over the board, “is how things will actually go when you are outside of the classroom.”

I have found his words to be true in every professional endeavor since.

You can have a strong point of view about how to solve a problem for your clients based on everything from a strong hunch in the shower to lots of “book research.”

But you find out if your thought leadership has legs by testing it over and over again in a lot of different environments. Real clients will discover every inconsistency, push back on fuzzy ideas, and show you where your ideas just don’t work when applied to a real situation.

Part 4: Create models, tools, metaphors and stories

If you and your clients survive the testing stage (it takes a lot of grace on both sides!), models, metaphors and stories will emerge that land with you and your clients.

This is often the stage where you write a book, codify and scale a method or develop specific programs, tools and metaphors.

A key idea that jumped out when I wrote Escape from Cubicle Nation was “Hating your job intensely is not a business plan.”

It summed up my point of view about leaving your corporate job to start a business that contrasted with peers at the time who were encouraging people to “leap and the net will appear.”

When you create your models and tools, you move your thought leadership from an idea in your head to a system of solving problems that can be taught and applied by others. Many choose to build licensing or certification programs at this stage.

In my last book, I defined your body of work as “everything you create, contribute, affect and impact throughout the course of your life.”

This includes a lot of things that do not require any steps or phases, like being a kind and generous partner, parent or community member. Or being the person that cracks everyone up at family reunions. Or maintaining a beautiful garden.

But for those parts of your body of work that you want to endure the test of time, practicing some rigor around the development of your thought leadership will serve your legacy well.

To your impact!

Reader Interactions


  1. L. Rushing says

    Application versus theory has challenged some of my new colleagues, so I am encouraged by Part 3 of this post. Your professor had it right with the straight line being our theoretical (or even academic) approaches, but the messy squiggle is absolute reality! Well said, thank you!

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