Spitfire Strategies

Putting the Thought into Thought Leadership

Kristen Grimm

By Kristen Grimm

Every month, Spitfire hosts a strategy lab where we discuss best practices or hear from external experts to improve our craft and make us smarter. For the March strategy lab, we held a special alumni edition, inviting former Spitfires to join current staff and explore a topic.

Former Spitfire @KarleyKranich, now at the Environmental Defense Fund, wanted to talk thought leadership. We are often asked to help leaders become thought leaders and organizations become the go-to group on a topic or issue. I could think of no one better on this subject than Beth @kanter, the digital transformation maven and author of The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout.

To get our brains thinking, these were the pre-reads:

During the strategy lab, Beth shared many helpful practices for how to establish thought leadership by driving conversations, influencing others and becoming the go-to that people call when they want to better understand an issue. One of the insights that stuck with me was the idea of having an honest conversation with the would-be thought leader to set expectations about the time and energy this endeavor will take.

Before you decide to help someone or become a thought leader yourself, it’s important to first make sure you are up for the adventure. As a group, we delved into how to set these expectations and came up with the following list:

You, the would-be thought leader, must have some thoughts to share.

Seems obvious enough – “thought leadership” starts with “thought,” after all – but doing this takes work. You’ll need to read a lot, talk to others and develop perspectives and opinions that you want to share.

  • The “thinking thoughts” thing will take time. You need to put it on your calendar regularly, so you have time to peruse and ruminate. If you don’t have time to be one of the smartest, most thoughtful people on the issue, you likely won’t cut through a crowded marketplace of ideas.
  • You can’t outsource the thought piece. As you know more, and people turn to you more, they want to hear what YOU think. Sure, someone can help you by telling you what hashtag to pair your thought with, but you will have to think thoughts that are worthy of others’ attention. If someone else is doing that for you, then they are the actual thought leader.
  • Pro Tip: It’s a lot easier to have original, compelling ideas if you choose a clear lane that isn’t already crowded with people saying the same thing. While you need to have a personality, perspective and a persona to connect, you need to offer something unique as well. If someone is already saying exactly what you want to say, consider narrowing or focusing your purview to offer something special.

People look to people – not rote talking points or staid organizations and institutions – for leadership.

If people wanted someone who sounded wooden and hollow they would ask “Alexa, what do you think about narrative change?” But they don’t. They seek opinions from people who have a personality, a point of view and charisma.

Thought leadership requires you to engage in and deepen relationships. It isn’t just speaking and leaving or posting on your social media page and tuning out. You need to engage with those who ask questions or want to continue the discussion. You also want to spread goodwill by spotlighting those you are learning from and those who are advancing your thinking. Giving love will encourage others to reciprocate.

You need to be ready to invest the time it takes to get out there, and stay in the conversation.

People turn to thought leaders because they are consistently out there on a topic. Thought leadership means regularly weighing in and being on top of your area of interest. We count on you to be ahead of the curve and curate for us what we need to know.

Thought leaders are thick-skinned.

If you have an opinion, chances are someone else has the opposite one. And in a digital world, they’ll let you know it. Thought leaders who are putting themselves out there need to be ready to hear what people really think about them. Think of the three worst things someone could say about you and expect they will say them – in public. Can you take it? If the answer is “Yes!” then you might have what it takes to become a true thought leader.

We are thankful to Beth Kanter for sharing her expertise and to the Spitfire alumni and staff (below) for taking the time to put the “thought” into thought leadership.

Back row, from left to right: Mark Shields, Dennis Poplin, Kristen Grimm, Monisha Som, and Pete Rafle. Front row: Ketayoun Darvich-Kodjouri, Monisha Som, Katie Test Davis, Jamie Lee Kiles, and Karley Kranich.

“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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