Be a Thought Leader: Following Steve Jobs’ Example

However defined, there’s no doubt that the leader who propelled Apple Inc. to its preeminent position in the technology marketplace also directly impacted how we view and consume information. And, while the company itself will continue to succeed without Steve Jobs given the resounding popularity of its innovative products, its legacy will forever be rooted in the man standing on stage in a black turtleneck and jeans.

Jobs didn’t just brand his organization: He branded himself to align with the core values of the business, generate excitement around upcoming products and personalize the digital world. He built a network of loyal and trusting consumers, helping Apple’s reputation as a leading authority on innovative technology skyrocket, outshining competitors and driving revenue. Jobs was more than an organizational “mascot.” He was a thought leader.

Thought leadership is increasingly a vital differentiator in today’s complex and cluttered marketplace. But if you don’t do it well, you could do more harm than good. If you’re not able to connect your ideas to solutions, expand people’s thinking or tie your insights back to the business, you aren’t giving your organization a competitive edge. Rather, effective thought leaders are experts who propel ideas, from best practices to policy, to drive real change. They are recognizable industry pioneers.

While few of us will achieve Jobs’ iconic status, we can learn from his star example how to become a memorable thought leader. First, however, we need to better understand the value thought leadership presents.

What is Thought Leadership Anyway?

According to IBM’s Capitalizing on Complexity survey, 76 percent of CEOs believe providing customers insight and intelligence is the most important dimension to realizing their goals for reinventing customer relationships. To deliver on that promise, it’s time to stop selling and start leading—with thoughtful theories, game-changing ideas and meaningful perspective. After all, today’s customers are no longer buying products and services; they are instead buying into expertise and approaches to solving problems.

As organizations emerge – or prepare to emerge – from this confidence-draining global recession, leaders face grueling competitive conditions. Customers are pulling away instead of getting closer, particularly as new social networking channels capture a greater share of attention. But it’s not just attention that has wandered. Interactions have changed as well. And as they continue to encounter new products, services and experiences daily, they are growing less loyal to their brands and even their own habits. Adding to the complexity is the fact that reputations can be built and burned at a rapid clip by opinions shared online, “texted” and “tweeted” by friends, bloggers and advocacy groups. Clearly, companies must reignite customer interest and loyalty or risk losing ground – in market share and revenue – to competitors. The question is how?

Five Elements of Effective Thought Leadership

Thought leadership is about conversation and building relationships. It’s about meaningful content that gives you and your organization the voice to not only participate in but to speak your customers’ language while driving the dialogue.

Importantly, anyone can have a smart thought and share with a group, but how do you harness those good ideas and evangelize them to grow your reputation and organization? Here are five key elements to help establish, strengthen and sustain your thought leadership.

  1. Start with an idea. Thought leadership always starts with a vision. What is your original, innovative, forward-thinking idea that will help your audience navigate the most pressing challenges and create new opportunities?  Consider capabilities and knowledge that make you and/or your organization stand out from the competition.
  1. Make it stick. Develop sticky messages to communicate your idea, and translate them into compelling, relevant and timely content—blogs, articles, presentations, video—designed for the right channels, including traditional and social media, digital platforms, marketing and speaking engagements. Focus on no more than three messages.
  1. Deliver value. Understand your audience’s problems and issues. Does your solution have the potential to make an impact for the future? Are you meeting unknown demand or need?
  1. Build trust. People do business with people they trust. And trust is often cultivated through the sharing of skills, knowledge and expertise. Help your audiences make sense of things. Offer insight, opinions and guidance to inform their decisions and new ways of thinking.
  1. Motivate action. Successful thought leadership inspires and influences audiences’ action. Whether you’ve influenced their buying decision, helped them do their job better or simply aided in their understanding of an issue, your newly established rapport will position you as a go-to resource time and time again.

Thought leaders bridge knowledge gaps with audiences, generate third-party credibility, trigger conversation and ultimately create long-term growth opportunities for themselves and their businesses.

Do you have what it takes to propel ideas and drive change?

About Ned Ward

With more than a decade at Stern, Ned has had the opportunity to counsel – and learn from – some of the brightest minds in business. A lifelong student, he is always searching for new ways to hone his craft by applying insights and ideas from outside sources. He says inspiration can come from anywhere in the world – from his young children to emerging start-ups to more established brands – which he constantly draws on to infuse creativity into client programming. As vice president, his pragmatic leadership style combines with strategic thinking to effectively connect clients with top-tier media, conferences and industry influencers. If he hadn’t answered the call to become a communications pro, you might have found him as a carpenter crafting wood furnishings and cabinetry.