When we think of thought leaders, we think of people like Brene Brown or Lewis Howes who decided to stand for something, and went after that mission consistently on social media, in talks, on podcasts, and in every way they could get in front of an audience. They put their trademark on sayings, like Rachel Hollis with “Made for More,” and created books and workshops based on their research, such as Brendon Buchard’s “High Performance Habits.” From the way I see it, the commonality amongst these thought leaders and others is that they stood for something few others were standing for and built a brand around it, continuously creating more ways to further their thought and share it with others.
Thought leaders choose different mediums to express thought and stand out against the status quo. I was particularly intrigued by the story of Kathy McArthur, one of the first female trial attorneys in Georgia. After graduating law school in 1979, she entered the courtroom as one of the first female voices in a time still heavily influenced by sexism, but proved through years as a leader in her field that thought leaders are created from all professions. We sat down to talk about what she’s learned from her 40 years of standing out, and how female entrepreneurs at all stages of their lives can command the same courage and creativity.
1. Take a stance no one else is taking – but base it in research.
It sounds cliche, but the first element to being a thought leader is to be entirely and unabashedly yourself, and take a stance that no one else is taking. But, make sure you have the research to boot. “I knew that I had to prove my credibility and worth continuously, so I always made sure to work with the facts rather than embellishing what was already there,” McArthur shared with me. “If your basis is research, no one can attack that.”
Facts and research also can show others that there’s a problem that you’re solving with your line of thought. Brene Brown bases her content in research she specifically did around vulnerability and shame, and this research has created the basis for what she talks about. “Facts do the work for you when you’re still building your reputation,” McArthur added.
2. There’s no substitute for hard work.
“I learned very quickly that the best way to teach others to take me seriously was to work harder than anyone else,” McArthur noted. Being a thought leader requires exactly that. While building a voice and an audience around a certain mission, thought leaders are tireless in their approaches to creating content, programs, and churning out social media posts and podcasts to boot to increase visibility. “People like to see someone who’s working hard,” McArthur added. “It makes you trust them. It shows, ‘wow, if they’re putting this much effort into this, they must truly care.’” McArthur said the same trust was built amongst her clients and colleagues simply because she sought to prove she was the hardest working attorney in town.
3. Consider how others will perceive what you’re saying.
A great thought leader first considers where their audience is, and how to meet them where they are. “A good attorney knows that there are two sides to everything,” said McArthur. “You have to understand the perception that the other side has, and take that into consideration with your language.” This doesn’t mean you should dilute your message to appeal to more people, including the naysayers – it just means to be mindful of what they’re thinking and see how you can sway them.
“Again, facts and research provide the best foundation for influencing others,” McArthur reminds us. But think through common rebuttals. Think ahead to how people from all walks of life could internalize or consider what you stand for. At the very least, it makes you more empathetic, which can make you more impactful.
4. Seek mentorship, but stay true to yourself.
Finally, every entrepreneur needs a good mentor who can show them the ropes. “I always sought counsel from attorneys who had been in the field for years longer than I had,” said McArthur. “You’re never too experienced or too skilled to not humbly seek mentorship.” But there’s one caveat to relying on a mentor – true thought leaders must value their own authenticity above all. “Listen to their advice, but value your own gut instinct first. I never followed any advice that didn’t feel right to me.”
It’s a balance between valuing someone’s recommendations while also forging your own path. Rely on a mentor’s advice as to how to reach more people, work more productively, or think through your business models. But your thought leadership – what you stand for – should continue to be entirely up to you. That’s how you stand out as who you truly are.