The other day, I stirred up a minor discussion on Twitter regarding the term "thought leader."

My point was to explain how one could become a thought leader - by actually leading in the community in which you wish to be recognized.  The conversation, however, quickly turned to the definition itself.

The overwhelming sense was that the term, "thought leader," was too steeped in phony definitions to be of any practical use:

Self-Applied Terms

As a rule, I absolutely disdain self-appointed titles. It's one thing to have a job title - a term descriptive of your role and relative position within a company. It's another thing entirely to have a community title.

Think of the number of self-appointed "Internet mavens," "code ninjas," and "online gurus" you've met at conferences. These terms are meant, almost explicitly, to surround a person's job in the auras of mystery and mastery. They pack all the bang of snappy marketing with none of the functional resume to back up the claim.

I have little respect for anyone who calls themselves a "digital prophet" since the title itself is merely self aggrandizement and does absolutely nothing to establish a role, responsibilities, or credibility in the market. I do have respect for people who embody a cryptic title without actually using it as a personal label.

"Thought Leader" is not a title

At one of the first WordCamps I attended, a friend of mine asked a speaker how he solved new problems that came up as WordPress changed and added to its APIs.

Well, when I come across something I don't understand, the first thing I do is check to see if Justin Tadlock has written a tutorial on it. If he hasn't, then I turn down the project because I have no idea.

Justin Tadlock doesn't use a catchy title like "prophet" or "ninja" to build his credibility. He uses a well-written tutorial site, some amazing theme work, and even a well-reviewed book on WordPress to establish his credentials.

He also doesn't call himself a thought leader - the community calls him that.

"Thought leader" isn't a title. It's not something you can call yourself. It's something you just are.

A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.[ref]What is a Thought Leader?[/ref]

You are a thought leader if conference organizers seek you out when building a schedule. You are a thought leader if you've ever been interviewed on the radio or in a podcast. You are a thought leader if anyone has ever sought your opinion or expertise on an issue.

You are a thought leader if the community of which you're a part looks to you for inspiration, innovation, and leadership.

Do you consider yourself a thought leader? Would you like to play that role in your respective community?