Could you become a thought leader?

Philip Verhaeghe was invited to give a keynote speech at the Freelance Business Day 2019 to uncover the topic of thought leadership.

Every freelancer is eager to know how to position themselves as a thought leader and an expert in their own professional field, thus we are publishing his speech below.

by Philip Verhaeghe, Freelance editor and advisor, Belgium

"Many freelancers dream to be broadly recognised as an authority
and thought leader in their particular field of work."

What is Thought leadership?

Many people claim it, many people strive towards it. Few achieve it.
.Here are some world famous thought leaders:

  • Sheryl Sandberg (Women in the workplace)
  • Stephen Covey (Time management matrix)
  • Ray Kurzweil (AI and Futurology)
  • Steve Jobs (mobile technology)
  • Richard Branson (aviation and travel)
  • Prof Thomas Piketty (Modern capitalism)
  • Elon Musk (Electric Car)
  • Warren Buffet (Investing)
  • Seth Godin (Marketing Guru)
  • Gary Vaneyrchuk (a (Wine) entrepreneur going social)

Any Belgians?

It's delicate but thought leaders on a Belgian scale could be politician Bart De Wever, Economist Geert Noels, disruptor Peter Hinssen, customer marketeer Steven Van Belleghem.
''A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as
someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their
customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have
distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights''

by Joel Kurtzman, editor in chief at "Strategy & Business" 1994
You can find plenty of thought leadership stuff on the internet: from definitions to instructions. Some interesting, some strange, some weird, some rubbish.

So I must put it into perspective. I take it serious for sure, but not too serious.

The term thought leader was first coined in 1994 by the late Joel Kurtzman, editor in chief at "Strategy & Business".

But 25 years later, his definition is a bit outdated in the current internet era. An expert used to be a bright person who indeed deeply understood the
business. But the world evolved very fast and Google search has changed everything for experts. With an Internet connection you can get more
information than you will ever need or be able to read.

By the way, If you want to see a really funny speech about thought leadership see Pat Kelly's thought leader speech below.
A modern definition focussing on 3 vital elements
It starts with content or idea production: the thoughts
One must be different with distinctive, remarkable, visionary, controversial,
problem solving, ground breaking ideas, processes or arguments.

Being an subject matter expert is nice. Really nice. And there are plenty of
experts. But for thought leadership it is not enough anymore to really
understand your business and the needs of your customers.

A thought leader must be a passionate advocate for his or her topic.
He or she must also provide additional meaning, relevance and engagement to
his stakeholders. Because these people are trapped in that enormous gigantic
information overload in books, blogs, videos, guides and other newsletters.
Therefore the second element next to content: followers
As a Leader you need interaction with followers.

You set a course that others want to follow, you communicate on your expert content. You are prominently visible and influential. You go in an accessible dialogue with your growing audience. And you share what you think. The interaction with your network must make people think and react.
Authority or public recognition
This third element is the most difficult to achieve, because you don't have it in
your own hands. A thought leader is as such recognised within his industry, the
society, a large or small community. So the recognition comes from the outside
world after having achieved step 1 and 2.

In other words: Thought leadership is bestowed upon you by an audience. It's an
acknowledgement. Don't you ever dare to refer to yourself as a "Thought
Leader". That is the same as calling yourself handsome. If it's self-assigned or
self-labelling then you miss the point!
Thought leadership is a lifestyle decision without shortcuts, not a LinkedIn headliner.
Kevin Hong
Author of Outlier Approach, the Chief Sales Officer of Cinema Intelligence, and the co-founder of Dealflicks
An example: Greta Thunberg
Her first and unique message "school strike for climate" was picked up by the
media and received a lot of attention. When questioned by journalists on the
spot she developed a very meaningful point of view about the climate crisis and
the need for a sense of urgency. She knew how to draw the attention of the

Later on she elaborated her ideas and concerns in public speeches, social media
messages and articles.

You can hardly call her an climate expert, but as a climate activist she is an
authority with strong ideas and arguments.
Needless to point out that this girl literally has millions of followers when she demonstrates through the streets of any European capital. Remember what happened to her in Brussels.

Just watch the social media metrics: you see that both her twitter as her facebook account have been booming. Check @GretaThunberg - 16 year old climate activist with Asperger.

Her social media accounts in progression:


1 March 2019 222.000 followers
28 March 2019 363.618 followers
1 July 2020 4.100.000 followers


1 March 2019 255.000 followers
28 March 2019 477.472 followers
1 July 2020 2.900.000 followers


1 July 2020 10.400.000 followers
She's listened to, the media covers her, powerful people and VIPs want to meet her, she's invited to prestigious meetings.

In January 2019 she was invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos where Christine Lagarde, CEO of IMF, wanted to be on the photo with her.

in February 2019 she went to the Katowice Climate conference and to a social meeting at the European Commission, with a (failing) Juncker.

She participated in a Brussels march with thousands of school children.

On March 8, 2019 she was nominated Woman of the year in Sweden. Friday 15th the same month, she organised student marches in more than 30 countries. At the age of 16, she is already nominated for Nobel peace prize and for other awards.

She has her own Wikipedia page and her own TED talk.

Advantages or benefits for freelancers of being a thought leader

More respect
  • You do and say things that make your competitors see you as a leader or expert
  • Others in your industry come regularly to you to seek your advice
  • Your opinion or view on something shapes the conversation in your industry
  • When there is a new idea, others come to you to learn your opinion
More opportunities
  • You will be top of mind in the media for your field of expertise
  • You will be invited to speak at events or give interviews for radio and TV
  • People pay you to speak at seminars, to write books and to spread ideas
  • You get a lot of opportunities for further career advancements (you can charge higher rates)
More sales
Becoming renowned through thought leadership you will of course directly increase your turnover, your revenue.

(What if Greta would sell some smart merchandising? She or her organisation would become very, very rich)
What are some risks?
Every important initiative always holds some potential risks
You need to understand the specific challenges of thought leadership.

I. Content side

1. You may produce unwanted 'content noise'

As more freelancers embrace content marketing, they are discovering that it's
easy to get lost in a cacophony of content noise. A lot of different marketing
tactics are subject to diminishing returns. What once seemed revolutionary has
now been used or said so many times that it has lost its effectiveness. Always
Beware of unwise or 'unthoughtful' content production. Poor content can drive away potential clients.

2. You may lose the Competitive (content) battle.

in some niches there are already established thought leaders with a glut of good
content. In some others entrepreneurs like you are trying to brand themselves
as the new thought leader. This competition makes it difficult to break through.
The risk here is causing a bad impression for yourself by trying to provide advice
that is..... actually just the same as what everyone else has in their communication. Another risk is putting a lot of time and efforts in this difficult struggle without seeing any results.

II. Followers side

1. You're in some way 'responsible' for your advice

You expose yourself personally to criticism for the ideas and solutions you put
out to your followers. This is a liability you shouldn't take lightly. What if something goes wrong? What if an advice is harmful? (What if you want to be a Thought leader in a new spectacular food nutrient that proves to be fake?)

2. Losing followers
You cannot become or remain a thought leader if others don't follow. There is always risk involved that you lose followers for some reason. For instance, at one time you may pivot and go off in an exciting new direction only to discover your customers really don't follow as they don't want to go there.

III. Recognition and authority side

1. Failing
Being so public in all what you do contains a risk. If you're sharing what you're doing, everyone can see when you succeed and when you fail. You'll need some kind of a plan for when this happens. No one succeeds 100% of the time, so you've got to show your followers how you're learning from this failure, and how it's going to help you in the future.

2. They may hurt your ego
You certainly do need a thick skin: as a thought leader, you're going to be in
some kind of a spotlight. There will always be adversaries. You will have to take
some derision or disbelief for your convictions. A controversial or different
viewpoint always creates friction or polarisation. You may awake the haters or
the trolls. So be careful.

What you need to do
to become a Thought leader?

There are a lot of websites and blogs that tackle this question. They make it seem
very easy. With a lot of trash and some wise words which are repeated many
times. I compiled the nicest tips, the best advice and my own ideas in a personal

First the good news:

Almost anyone can become a thought leader. Just don't think you need specific
degrees. You don't need academic qualifications in order to be considered an
expert. It really is the experience that leads the way here, not where you went
to school. It's all about what you do, rather than where you've been.
You don't have to become a world famous thought leader. There are different
dimensions. You can also become a happy thought leader in a rather small

Second the hard news:

Anyone can become one but only very few will achieve this. But it's worth to
pursue it. Compare it with winning at the lottery. It is a matter of hard work and
dedication; especially if you are just starting. If it was easy, everyone would be a
thought leader. Consider it as a long time personal journey with many steps to
take, one by one. There are no shortcuts. You have to build lasting habits .
Just start with delivering good service and useful answers to your customers.

And mind you: It's also easier to become a thought leader if you are an
entrepreneur who already created a product or concept that has seen a huge
commercial success. If your business ideas have borne fruit and you can repeat
that, then the world knows that your ideas have proven to work. That's the
reason why many successful entrepreneurs are considered to be thought
Steps to become one?
Be Experienced
You'll ideally have spent a few years in your niche industry, and really understand it inside and out.
Be Passionate
Finding and understanding your own passion is a substantial step. Passion for your field of expertise will allow you to work hard. This passion will drive you to become the best in your field.
Be Creative
Be curious and ask yourself often: how can this be done differently and better? You should be able to brainstorm original fresh ideas out of the box. You should be able to come up with solutions that can turn an industry on its head.
Be Open
You should make it easy for others to get in touch, connect and work with you. Be approachable via mail, phone and social media. Also be open-minded, take time to watch and hear new people and visit new places.
Be Authentic
That is a vital component of having people attracted to you. Don't be afraid to show your human vulnerability or other emotions. When you try to be someone you are not or when you say things you don't believe in, the audience will know
and feel it.
Be Convinced
You have to be self-confident and convinced that you have ideas for products or services that others need. Don't be afraid to belief in yourself and to follow your action plan. You need to be able to tell anyone why they should listen to you,
why they should follow you.
Be A doer, rather than a thinker
The true thought leader is someone who will take action, rather than just thinking and talking about it.
Pick your topic of work or expertise and stick to it and... Love it

No person can be an expert in everything. The critical step for any thought leadership strategy is to find your unique niche or field of mastery. That's the big strategy question: In what topic should and could a freelancer or solopreneur be a thought leader in? The market(s) that you serve well may be a combination of two or three strengths or factors. So, narrow it down.
Test your important ideas

Activate and consult a trusted group of people around you; friends, colleagues and maybe family. Think of them as some kind of an advisory board. Listen to them and their criticism, but decide for yourself. Challenge them to refine and improve the value of your ideas or products. Challenge them to re- think your business strategy.
Train and master your communication skills

You must become good at writing and public speaking and video blogging. Ask for help or follow courses if necessary. Reach out to mentor or a business coach or a club to master the techniques.
Create content and publish often

Find out what your audience wants, through consistent interaction. Start by answering questions that your audience has about your industry. Share ideas and powerful messages about how to change or improve things in your field of expertise. So create a "digital footprint" about your expertise. Some websites with a big following allow you to publish almost for free. Just try it out.
Anyway you will have to raise a broad awareness about your expertise through different content channels... As they say: write, write and write.
Speak up

You are going to have to speak, produce live video, get interviewed. So, develop your unique voice and style. Yes, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage when you don't speak up.
Start marketing yourself as a personal brand

Don't hesitate to start marketing yourself or pitch yourself to different media when possible. Make sure that you always have your pitch ready in 10 seconds. "What do you do?" By associating your idea with your name and business story, you can get people to become interested.
Network in person and online frequently

Always focus on collecting new ideas and meeting interesting people. For instance through attending conventions and other networking events. Use Google to search the basic terms of your niche or specialty to see who is involved and what is happening, what events take place in Belgium, set yourself some Google Alerts. Find out who are the influential and well-connected people in
your area of expertise. Follow them on social media and try to get in contact with them. Force yourself to ask questions at conferences and to get in touch with the speakers.
Use the power of social media

Make sure you remain accessible on the social media platforms where your prospects and clients may hang out. Active presence with some high- engagement posts enables you to stay top of mind.
You should not only be posting your own stuff, you should also interact with other experts to learn from them. Get in contact with the right discussion groups, websites or publications in your expertise.
Never forget the value creation

Before you communicate: ask yourself 'does this help me to become a thought leader?' Think like a thought leader, ask yourself: 'What would a thought leader do?'
Some simple but important questions 'to self'
for aspiring thought leaders
What I know or do that others don't know or don't do is ...
What my followers, friends and relatives think I'm really good at is...
The personal weakness that I'll have to tackle the most is...
My pitching baseline as a freelancer is ...
I admire ............... as a real thought leader because (s)he ..........
One day I could become a thought leader in the specific niche of ...
My strengths that could help me to become a thought leader are.....
My first next concrete step to become a thought leader is ...
And remember:
If not me, then who?
If not now, then when?

Philip Verhaeghe
Freelance Journalist

If you would like to share your (leading!) thoughts or questions or give me any form of feedback or suggestions on the content or this presentation, please do!

Philip Verhaeghe is business writer, freelance editor and advisor, content provider, corporate governance consultant and public speaker.

Connect with Philip:
Twitter @phverhaeghe

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