Everybody wants to be a thought leader these days.
Can you guess how many professionals describe themselves as thought leaders on LinkedIn? (Hint: It’s nearly a million.) When Bill Murphy Jr. at Inc. quizzed prominent executives and entrepreneurs about which corporate clichés they loathed the most, thought leader came in at No. 1.
So why are so many styling themselves as thought leaders if that term makes the rest of us roll our eyes?
The reality is, true thought leaders are not cliché, and real thought leadership isn’t irrelevant—far from it. I’d argue that, in this era of actual fake news and widespread misinformation, we need thought leaders now more than ever. In today’s crowded field of advertisers, infotainment, carnival barkers and dwindling attention spans, bona fide thought leaders stand out and command respect.
In a recent survey of 1,200 business decision-makers by global communications firm Edelman, 58 percent of respondents reported that thought leadership directly led them to award business to particular organizations.
Thought leaders like corruption and fraud prosecutor Preet Bharara, professor and social science guru Jonah Berger, cannabis visionary Steve DeAngelo, racial justice advocate DeRay Mckesson and Silicon Valley muckraker Kara Swisher have gained public trust by sharing their hard-won experience, asking tough questions, making compelling arguments and shining their spotlights on pressing issues in their industries and communities.
Once it’s earned, the title “thought leader” conveys an authority, gravitas, visibility and credibility that money can’t buy.
But earning it is the key here.
How Become a Legit Thought Leader
The eye-rolling starts when individuals who haven’t done the hard work simply dub themselves thought leaders.
That’s not how this works.
If you really want to develop your thought leadership and avoid getting written off as just another big-talking corporate drone, you must observe some essential principles—which is why I’m introducing Grasslands’ 10 Tenets of Thought Leadership, a how-to blog series (and soon, a book) for entrepreneurs, influencers and executives looking to elevate their public presence, amplify their industry-specific expertise and offer meaningful insights to their peers and the wider community.
I’m crafting this series / book to discuss the bedrock principles of true thought leadership, as my colleagues and I have developed them in-house at Grasslands, our journalism-minded communications agency. From effectively gathering and sharing your thoughts to pitching the proper outlets, curating your social media presence to practicing the art of subtlety and staying authentic and true to yourself—I’ll discuss the ways you can do this work yourself, or partner with an agency like Grasslands to help you get there.
I founded my own full-service agency after more than two decades in Pulitzer-winning newsrooms—and when it comes to modern thought leadership, I’ve assembled a wealth of experience about what hits, what misses and what absolutely crushes.
So if you’re ready for some real talk about how to separate yourself from those hundreds of thousands of “thought leaders” on LinkedIn and actually start influencing and leading in your industry, keep an eye on the Grasslands blog—where we’ll start releasing this series, tenet by tenet.
Ricardo Baca is a 20-year veteran journalist and cannabis futurist, widely respected in both modern media and drug-policy circles. He was appointed The Denver Post’s first-ever cannabis editor in 2013 and founded news vertical The Cannabist, where he extensively covered the advent of the U.S. adult-use cannabis market and related issues around the world, as seen in the feature documentary Rolling Papers.
Ricardo launched Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency in 2016 to work directly with business leaders in highly regulated industries, from cannabis and psychedelics to spirits and healthcare. In 2023, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis appointed Ricardo to the state’s first-ever Natural Medicine Advisory Board to contribute to policy development around the state’s eventual psychedelics framework.
Named one of Fortune’s 7 Most Powerful People in America’s Marijuana Industry in 2016 and Marketer of the Year by AdCann in 2019, has received numerous accolades for his trailblazing work. In addition to his previous journalistic coverage of drug policy, cannabis business and culture, Ricardo continues to host panel discussions at events nationwide and contribute columns for a number of top publications including Rolling Stone. He is also a sought-after thought leader in media, cultural events and podcasts, and has spoken on The Colbert Report, NPR’s All Things Considered, TEDxBoulder, TEDxMarin and multiple years at SXSW.