Ah, thought leadership.
What is it? We don’t know, but it sounds cool. Let’s do that.
How do we do that? We create cutting-edge, inspiring content, and we get it “out there.”
Okay… How do we do “cutting-edge”?
…I have no idea. Just call the freelancer.
It’s hard to pin down what “thought leadership” means these days. In some circles, it seems to involve hiring a specific brand of motivational speaker to waste your team’s time in the name of feeling good about not adding anything to your bottom line. In others, it’s all about regurgitating old-school business wisdom in 21st-century packages. Once in a great while, someone will point out that “thought leadership” should, y’know, lead somewhere – but the reason folks are fed up with it is that is so rarely does this in practice.
I first got introduced to “thought leadership” in 2016 or so, when a client asked me to “position [them] as a thought leader in [their] industry.”
At the time, I had no idea what this meant. I was a little intimidated by it.
Like so many others, I assumed that “thought leadership” implied I needed to communicate ideas worth having but that no one was talking about. That’s hard to do when, like me, you write for a half-dozen different industries every week. I’m good, but I’m not a top thinker in six different industries good.
Or am I?
Here’s why your favorite “thought leader” is probably a freelance writer in disguise:
1. Thought leadership isn’t about actually being at the top of your game.
Sure, it helps. But as with everything under the sun of late-stage capitalism, what you know is less important than how well you can distribute your image as a source of that knowledge.
To succeed as a “thought leader,” you don’t actually have to have cutting-edge, five-years-ahead-of-their-time thoughts. You need to be able to rearrange the ideas that are emerging today in a way that makes other people say “Eureka!”
You know who’s really good at finding current conversations, gleaning out the relevant bits, and repackaging them into a shiny, shareable 1500 words of new car smell? Freelance writers.
In fact, I’m about to drop that last paragraph into my LinkedIn profile.
2. Most thought leaders really want to be influencers.
I have never had anyone whose life work was research ask me to “position [them] as a thought leader,” and I never will.
There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest one is that wannabe (excuse me, “emerging”) thought leaders occupy industries in which turning your own name into a trustworthy brand is part and parcel of success. You don’t just need to be good at what you do; you need people in your industry to know you’re good at it.
The goal of thought leadership, in most cases, is to turn the emerging thought leader into an “influencer,” or someone whose platform is so large that others turn to them for access to their audience. That’s why “thought leadership” itself has become a commodity for which people are willing to pay money.
But how do you make the transition from nobody to thought leader and from thought leader to influencer? The right people to ask are those that sit at the nexus every single day: content writers.
Iv’e been in this business for about ten years now, and in that time, I’ve seen innumerable people, ideas, and methods come and go. I started writing in the “cram keywords into barely comprehensible content” era; today, I wouldn’t dream of writing for anyone but actual humans. I remember when we didn’t have names for “influencers.” Heck, I remember the screechy noise my 14k modem made.
In short, I understand how thought leaders and influencers get made. For someone who wants to make that climb, I’m the one to ask for advice.
3. Writing is a separate skill set from thought leadership.
Some people who want to become thought leaders are legitimately great at what they do. It’s in everyone’s best interests for these folks to keep doing what they do.
But what they do isn’t building a personal brand, or writing world-class content, or connecting it to the work of others in their industry. To do that, they’d have to step away from what they do and learn how to research trending keywords, identify existing influencers, or strike the right “candid, yet professional” tone.
It’s a waste of their time and talent. That’s where freelance writers come in.
We’re the nerds who buy ourselves subscriptions to Buzzsumo for Christmas. We installed Pocket because we got sick of crashing our phone’s mobile browser with open tabs. We wouldn’t dream of committing to a headline for this post without comparing “thought leader” and “thought leadership” in Google Trends.
(Don’t believe me? This post’s draft headline was “Your Thought Leader is Actually a Freelance Writer.”)
In fifteen minutes’ time, I can tell you what conversations you should be having today, which ones everyone else will be having tomorrow, and which ones have already been consigned to the purgatory of memes and dad jokes. In twenty-five minutes, I can also tell you how your industry’s biggest conversations affect [insert other industry here] and vice versa.
We don’t want subject-matter experts to be able to do that. We want them to go on experting at their subject matter. Context and communication are freelance writers’ area of expertise.
Is it worth taking so-named “thought leaders” seriously? As someone who writes an awful lot of the content that appears under their bylines, I’m going to say:
Don’t take the title seriously. It’s a bit silly these days, and even Google Trends is predicting that it’s had its time in the sun.
But read the work. Some of it cuts right to the heart of topics you’d otherwise have to distill from ten or twenty articles on the same topic. Some of it will frame problems in a way you never considered before, leading you like magic to an answer that has eluded you. Some of it is just plain interesting.
I know. I wrote it.