The four steps for how to become a thought leader

How do you become a thought leader?

In this post, I’ll share the four steps every elite performer in any field takes to get to the top. Plus, three actions to kickstart your progress today.

Anders Ericsson and the Science of High Performance

Anders Ericsson (1947-2020) was an expert on expertise. He was a world-class researcher on how to develop skills.

You may have heard of the 10,000-hour rule made popular by Malcolm Gladwell. This comes from Ericsson’s work.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool - Peak

The four-step framework in this post comes from the book he wrote with Robert Pool called Peak: Secrets from the new science of Expertise. (I did a book summary of this book over at Book Rapper under the title, Learn.)

If you want to be amazingly good at anything – especially as a thought leader or content creator – then this post is for you. It will give you a map to locate where you are and what you need to do next to make it to the top of your field.

1 Just Play

Your first steps to becoming a thought leader are usually driven by curiosity.

Just Play - Jenga
Photo by Michal Parzuchowski on Unsplash

This photo of a child playing Jenga captures it beautifully. He is simply playing a game. But if he does well and he gains a little encouragement from his parents, his sister, or his favourite uncle, then this might just get the ball rolling.

Step 1 to become a thought leader = PlayThey might say simple things like:

  • ‘You’re good at this’
  • ‘Great work, you’re a natural’ or perhaps
  • ‘I think we have a little architect on our hands here’.

Our social desire to be valued allows this external motivation to become a spark that lights the fire within. Clearly who you hang out with when you’re starting out is vital.

At work, being in the play phase may look like this:

  • You deliver a random presentation in a meeting resulting in encouraging feedback.
  • The report you write gets talked about.
  • Or perhaps it’s the ideas you share that change what people do.

In the play phase of developing your expertise, you’re not thinking about becoming a thought leader. Instead, you’re simply doing the tasks in front of you without a view to the future.

I’ve seen this a lot in people writing books. They don’t see themselves as an author, simply as someone writing a book.

But the encouragement you gain along the way opens the door to what might be possible in the future.

Where in your business or career are you in the play phase of developing your expertise?

2 Get Serious

Step 2 to become a thought leader - SeriousThe second step to become a thought leader occurs when you become more deliberate about what you want.

You set a goal to become an innovator, a presenter, an author, a subject matter expert or a thought leader.

The turning point is when you turn your play into practice. This means you are deliberately devoting your time to improving your skills.

Often this comes with finding a coach, a mentor, or a guide who you can learn to accelerate your progress. They partly show you the way forward. And they also act to ensure that you practice.

Growing up this might have been when you:

  • Took musical lessons,
  • Joined a sporting team or
  • Took on a tutor for your schoolwork.

Your motivation starts to include both external influences from your coach and your own internal drive.

And this progress is fuelled when you start to see the benefits of your hard work.

As a young sports person, this might be when you’re selected to play in a higher-level team. Or it might be when you get promoted in your job.

You might begin to receive requests to give presentations, lead meetings, or have people coming to you for advice at work.

Importantly, you also change the way you see yourself. You’re no longer just doing a presentation – you now call yourself a presenter. This shift in identity signals a change in how you see yourself.

My Examples

In public speaking, I’m an example of someone not making the step from Play to Serious. Even though I have delivered around 30 paid presentations in the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, I have never actively sought out presentations.

In contrast, I’ve now written 12 books. In the beginning, I was just writing. But along the way, I changed my identity to author, and I began to deliberately practice my skills to improve the quality of my work.

Where in your business or career are you at the serious stage of developing your expertise?

3 Commit

Step 3 to become a thought leader = CommittedThe third step to become a thought leader occurs when you decide to become the best you can be. It’s the step from Serious to Committed.

At the Serious level, you might take on a local coach, whereas at the committed level you invest the time and money to seek out the best teaching and learning you can find. This might be the shift from being mentored by your boss or your parent because they are easy to access – compared to seeking out an expert in your field.

Plus, your motivation shifts totally to you. You’re no longer relying on others to keep you going.

This is also when you start to align your lifestyle to achieve your high-performance goals. Previously, your pursuit was fitted into your life, not your life fits the pursuit. And typically, this requires support from your family.

For me, when I started on YouTube last year, I promised to create ten videos and then assess my next move. It was only then that I committed to the long-term goal to be the best I could be as a visual storyteller and movie maker. Since then, I’ve devoted 60-80% of my working week to creating videos and learning how to create better videos. Importantly, I design my working week around creating my videos first. My client and other works fits in around this.

Where in your business or career are you at the committed stage of developing your expertise?

4 Break New Ground

Step 4 to become a thought leader - break new groundThe fourth step to become a thought leader occurs when you pursue groundbreaking work.

Instead of seeking mainstream choices, you start exploring the edges of current knowledge for breakthrough ideas. And this is where you begin to focus your attention.

To achieve this, you must already be an expert in your field – you need to know what are the mainstream ideas before you can explore the edges and create alternatives.

In this stage, it’s almost like you become a beginner again where once again curiosity plays an important part in your work.

The key is to continue to do the work. There are no shortcuts here. Most Nobel Prize winners published more scientific papers than their colleagues. Doing the work is the path to success.

At some point, your motivation transcends itself and becomes a purpose. You simply wake up and get to work because that’s who you are and that’s what you do.

One part of this shift to purpose is that you no longer think about doing specific work. Instead, you focus on producing your life’s work.

For me, I have built up expertise in designing ideas through all the books, blog posts and things I’ve created over many years. But I haven’t begun to explore the edges as much as I would like – not yet.

If you’ve been creating groundbreaking thought leadership what have been the keys to your success?

Three Actions to become a Thought Leader today

Now for three actions, you can take today to kickstart your progress in becoming a thought leader.

  1. First, which of these four levels best describes where you are at? Are you at the play, serious, committed or groundbreaking stage of your thought leadership career?
  2. Second, what action do you need to take that will help you reach the next level? Is it motivation, having a coach or how you relate to your work?
  3. Third, what project will you create to help you reach that next level? Read this post for ideas on IP Creation projects to create.


The four steps for how to become a thought leader

More on how to become a Thought Leader

You might also like these three related posts on how to become a thought leader or content creator:

What’s your next step on your thought leadership or content creator journey?

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