Five qualities of effective thought leaders

Last year, Korn Ferry published a report on performance that I’ve been thinking about since I read it. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the qualities they associated with an effective feedback giver: courage, honesty, credibility, humility, and empathy, which culminate in self-awareness. Reflecting on some of the leaders and managers I’ve worked with who embody these qualities, this feels spot on. (You know who you are.)

But in the months since reading that piece, I’ve realized these very interrelated qualities apply to people who are effective in any number of roles—including authors of thought leadership. Here’s why these traits are so important for thought leaders:

Courage: Thought leaders need courage to put themselves out there and have a solid point of view. Some experts are understandably hesitant to take a strong or unpopular position on an issue or trend, but doing so is essential to truly being a thought leader. While there’s always some risk of being wrong or offending people, not taking a stance is likewise risky.

We saw this play out in early 2020, when the pandemic reached the United States and began upending businesses and lives. Many professional services firms and thought leaders pivoted and began publishing content predominantly on the pandemic and its impact, casting aside whatever they’d invested time and resources in already. They didn’t know whether the pandemic would be a fleeting challenge or what it actually became: a devastating and long-lasting global challenge—one that people everywhere would need lots of resources to manage and make sense of. They were offering ideas and resources while the pandemic unfolded, doing their best to make recommendations and predictions despite very uncertain and novel circumstances. It was a risk—but it mattered. Meanwhile, some firms didn’t initially revisit their publishing agenda and continued putting out pieces that no longer felt relevant.

Beyond the risk factor, thought leadership that fails to take clear and bold positions is likely to fall flat and not capture and keep readers’ attention.

Honesty: Relatedly, thought leaders must be honest—and, ideally, direct. For instance, when it comes to ESG efforts, firms should honestly report on their progress. Glossing over or reporting around opportunity areas or challenges defeats the purpose—and likely won’t fool the reader. Recently, one of my colleagues was reviewing an organization’s DEI report, which was designed to provide accountability and transparency to various stakeholders. In analyzing the data on diverse hires and recruiting practices, the organization was falling short of its goals. But the most important element in the report was honesty—to understand where they were and provide straightforward answers. That was the foundation for strategizing how it could change. We need honesty, not spin, to be able to tell stories of growth and impact. Honesty builds credibility—and dishonesty undercuts it.

Credibility: Credibility is essential to building trust with your readers and getting them to take your perspective seriously. Credibility comes from both honesty, as mentioned above, and experience. Case studies, then, are a critical component to thought leadership, as they demonstrate this experience and build the readers’ trust. If they lack that experience, some authors are tempted to draft fictitious anecdotes in the place of real examples. But doing so risks making the reader feel like you’re trying to pass off a fabrication as real experience, ultimately damaging credibility.

Humility: Humility—to accept help, direction, and additional insight from editors, coauthors, and other stakeholders—is key to a high-quality end product. Indeed, great content takes a small village. And authors need to be humble enough to understand the importance of all the different players in that village and trust those with expertise outside their own—trust that the designers know how to optimize the visuals for clarity and comprehension, that the copy editor understands the rules of hyphenation and capitalization, and that the digital communications expert can optimize the title for SEO.

Empathy: The most effective thought leadership speaks to real, complex challenges that people and businesses are facing. Understanding those challenges and drafting perspectives and solutions to them requires empathy with the reader. You have to understand the constraints they’re operating in and their mindsets about the challenges and create content that acknowledges and honors those things. For instance, an article on digital transformation in small businesses that fails to recognize and consider all the reasons this transformation would be difficult and why it maybe hasn’t been attempted yet would likely ostracize readers, who might feel misunderstood.

Combined, these traits make for a self-aware thought leader who understands the context they’re creating content in, respects their readers and collaborators alike, and can publish compelling pieces that push the thinking and are truly beneficial to the audience.

Annie Mullowney

As a senior editor, Annie focuses primarily on developmental editing and drafting, helping clients sharpen their stories and tell them in a compelling way. She also manages the Leff blog.

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