Go to any PR or marketing agency website, and you’ll likely see a little program called “thought leadership.” It promises CEOs a chance to be famous, fawned over by peers, and viewed as an innovator in their field. But in our view, the role of an agency should be to shape and amplify a thought leader who’s already acting as one —not create a thought leader from thin air. Here’s why:

Thought Leadership Matters—But Requires Great Leadership

Don’t tell your engineering team, but the best product doesn’t always win. That’s where thought leadership comes in. Take a successful product like Basecamp, for instance, which has a number of good competitors on the market. What helped differentiate Basecamp from the pack is its founder and CEO Jason Fried, who gained a following for his outspoken and often controversial opinions on all things work-related. In each industry there are versions of people just like Jason: By their very nature, when they talk, people pay attention.

Which brings me to my next point.

Not All Leaders Make Great Thought Leaders

It might sound like stating the obvious, but to be a thought leader, you have to have, you know, thoughts.  Leaders come in all varieties, from the sales hounds, to the product visionaries, to the financial gurus. Many times these people will, in fact, be thought leaders who have a genuine vision for their industry and the marketplace as a whole. But other times, that’s just not what they do best as a leader.

In the startup world in particular there are an exhausting number of executives who don’t know their overall market well and take a “let’s hope this fly sticks to the wall” approach to business. In our experience, it’s very difficult for this breed of executive to become a true thought leader until they’ve acquired more knowledge of their market.

For those who do pass the test, while they don’t necessarily need an agency to be seen more widely as a thought leader, it certainly helps. An agency can help think through the best content, channels, and influencers to leverage to get powerful messages across.

So You Want to be a Thought Leader

As we’ve suggested above, the first step to being seen as a thought leader is leveling with yourself if you really are one. If your answer is “yes,” the next step is laying out the knowledge and insights you have that are truly unique and valuable based on your experience as a CEO. From there, it’s a matter of crafting these into an accessible form, and making sure they connect to a big picture of the market. Guest posts (or as we call them in the biz, “bylines”) on widely read websites and blogs can then connect these ideas with a broader audience and ensure your message will be shared more broadly.

And if you’re not a thought leader? Consider sticking to what you do best, and letting other people at your company take on a thought leadership role instead. Because ”thought leader” or not, recognizing your strengths and weaknesses and letting others shine is one of the truest signs of a great leader.

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