I have the pleasure and privilege of acting as a mentor to a small number of younger people in our sector.

    I am also reverse mentored by a young digital entrepreneur, although the huge benefit I get from that particular relationship is perhaps for another time.

    I've recently been asked by two of my mentees about helping them with building a personal brand and positioning themselves as ‘thought leaders’.

    The fact that both had asked me pretty much the same question at the same time, although on separate occasions, really piqued my interest in the whole subject.

    The term thought leader is one of those terms we may struggle with, rather along the lines of ‘personal brand’ or ‘holistic’. We're probably all not great fans of these kinds of terms, but struggle to come up with something better.

    After doing a little research, I found the term thought leader has been around for a fair while. 

    It was probably first used to describe Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1876 as a “wizard thought leader.” I suspect the much-accomplished poet, philosopher and writer actually did qualify as a thought leader.

    ‘A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognised as an authority in a specialised field’


    I find myself struggling with the whole notion, particularly because of the use of the word ‘leader’.

    It seems self-serving and rather egocentric.

    Thought leadership has also become rather ubiquitous, particularly in marketing and content marketing circles.

    It is used by many, myself included, to describe content of varying quality. What may have once been termed sales material or simply information is now often presented as thought leadership.

    In reality, I think it is often just barely disguised marketing material, PR, or attempts for brands or individuals to stay front of mind.

    So, as is my way, I challenged my mentees to explain what they actually meant by the term.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, they replied along the lines of wanting to be seen as authorities and recognised as creative thinkers in their profession.

    These are admirable ambitions which I am all for, and are ultimately attainable. But I thought it might be better to help them reframe the conversation a little.  

    For me, real thought leadership should be original, thought-provoking, contextual and identifiably different.  

    I suggested that rather than seek to be seen to be as a thought leader, actually being one is much more useful.

    All things are relative. A technically competent financial planner is a thought leader among those who don't possess the technical knowledge and skills the planner has.

    Being able to share that knowledge in a useful and engaging manner is crucial to the successful delivery of financial plans.

    I don’t exactly believe in becoming a thought leader because I don’t think it's actually a personal descriptor or title.

    It’s more our actions, a way of life, and particularly a business way of life. It is about living the ideals we aspire to.

    Thought leadership isn't something that can be bought or paid for.

    It isn’t a column or a feature, nor is it winning an award. It most certainly isn’t paid for content from a copywriting farm or investment writer. 

    It is personal, proactive and heartfelt.

    It is about how we all collectively and actively participate and contribute to conversations about our profession, our sector and our wider industry.

    I believe it to be about honesty, integrity and a willingness to share, help and be involved.

    By demonstrating these values and accepting the challenge we build trust over time.

    The more beacons of integrity and engagement we have in our sector, and there are already many, the more we collectively lift all boats on the tide.

    It shows we are reachable, connected and are committed to making a long-term impact on our profession.

    I am not saying this is easy, and I accept it is a huge commitment. This is particularly true for introverts and those who feel less empowered for any number of reasons, be it age, gender, seniority or something else. 

    My advice to my mentees, after much thought and discussion, was simply this.

    Start now.

    Begin your network, write your first article, record your first video. Make your first foray into an online discussion you are interested in. Choose to add to our collective knowledge in your own particular ways.

    It is my experience that the already engaged and willing will rally to help you to succeed.

    I believe it to be as simple as that.

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