The Essence of Thought Leadership in a Cluttered Digital World

by Marcus Sheridan

thought leadership2We hear lots of talk about “thought leadership,” and it’s for good reason—it’s real. It matters. And it can lead to great things.

Some may try to deny this reality, but when we dig to the core of each of us—be it on an individual or business level—we all want to be viewed as a thought-leader in some way, shape, or form. Heck, I know I do.

But as with anything else in life, these two words don’t just happen on their own. They are a choice. And they usually don’t occur as quickly as each of us would like.

Mark Schaefer

This subject is on my mind as I sit here in an airport at 12am and catch up on a few of my favorite writers in the digital realm. One that has my attention on this evening is Mark Schaefer of Grow. I’ve been a fan of Mark’s for a long time. His writer’s voice is incredibly real, personal, and moving. And when I say moving, I mean that he forces me, with almost everything he writes, to agree or disagree with him.

Content Mill

Because of his willingness to tackle tough subjects all the time, Mark Schaefer has developed a brand as a clear thought leader in his field.

This is because Mark doesn’t live in the world of grey. He takes a stand on matters (like his abhorrence for all things SEO) and logically explains his point. At the same time though, Mark is not a “blogger that cried wolf.”

In other words, he doesn’t just say things to get false attention (i.e. “rabble rouser”). Nor does he use words carelessly.

By doing this, Mark is the classic example of a thought leader with a style that’s built to last, which is also why, if you look at his personal brand and blog growth over the past few years, it’s truly an exceptional rise.

I mention these things because Mark understands, as many others also do, that thought leadership is NOT for the weak and weary. In the digital world in which we all now live, many folks (and businesses)that attain some level of thought leadership through great content, at the first sign of trouble (be it discord, disagreement, etc. with said content) run the other way as fast as they can—ultimately dumbing-down their unique thoughts, style, and actions.

It’s the classic case of, “Many are called but few are chosen.”

Some Will Love You. Some Will Hate You.

Anytime we’re perceived as different we’re going to naturally draw positive and negative comments and feelings from others.

Anytime we take a stand on a particular subject the same will occur.

Marcus Sheridan Speaking

What emotions can you see in this photo?

This is exactly why I love the photo above. Why? Not because I’m fascinated with looking at myself, but rather the expressions on the faces of the audiences members. If you look at each, you’ll see what appears to be a mix of emotions these attendees are having. Some look completely enthralled, others are on the fence, and others seem more cautious in their acceptance of what’s being heard.

Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Not too long ago I gave a TED talk. After I was done, a gentleman came up to me said the following:

“I think you’re potentially very good Marcus, but your passion and energy levels need to be toned down a bit in my opinion.”

Upon hearing this, I chuckled loudly (albeit in my own head), as I’d just given the most “subdued” talk of my life. Had this man heard me in a “normal” presentation he likely would have left the room early due to sensory overload.

As I’ve mentioned in the past on this blog, I go into every talk and presentation I give knowing that 5-10% of the audience is going to in some way dislike me, my message, or my style—making  such statements as:

“He’s too enthusiastic.”

“He invades my space.”

“He makes me uncomfortable.”

And do you know what? I’m quite happy with that number. In fact, I embrace it, because it also allows for the other side of the coin—a huge portion of people LOVE my style, which explains why my speaking schedule for the rest of this year and much of next year is already full.

Simply put, if I listened to all those people over the past couple of years that have told me they didn’t like my speaking style I never would have gained so much traction, reputation, and success doing something I love.

The “Bad Fit”

The majority of all “cultural” problems within organizations comes down to the fact that they, despite often times knowing better, hire employees that are a bad fit.

The majority of customers that give good companies problems could have been prevented had said company trusted their gut and not done business with that person in the first place—thus recognizing they were a bad fit.

And for me, on a personal level, all of my speaking (and writing) success derives from this willingness to let go of the “bad fit” before I even step on stage, literally “releasing” said person(s) before the feedback forms ever even hit my inbox.

I really can’t stress this idea of knowing, identifying, and then releasing the “bad fits” from your business model. They will make or break you, that is for sure, and this is also the essence of thought leadership in a cluttered digital world.

So to close, I’d ask the following:

  • How attached are you to those people which are a bad fit to you and your business?
  • Are you willing to let them go so as to allow your true voice to heard?
  • And are you allowing your unique opinions and talents to shine so as to be viewed as a thought leader in your realm?

Your Turn

As always, I’d invite you to leave your thoughts below and if you’d like to share your story of becoming a thought-leader, I’m all ears…

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

John Bonini July 23, 2013 at 10:08 am

You make great points here, Marcus. When I think of any thought leader, whether Seth Godin or Gary Vaynerchuk, they all have one thing in common; they don’t rely on other resources to be a resource themselves.

They’re opinionated, passionate, and aren’t afraid of expressing either one. Like you said, in order to stand out, you also have to be okay with criticism. I don’t think you can become a thought leader without it.

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Marcus Sheridan July 24, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Amen to that John. No criticsm often means no one is hearing you.

Marcus

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Iain July 30, 2013 at 7:50 am

That’s exactly what I was thinking.

You can’t be a leading resource without rubbing some people the wrong way. I mean you can’t please everyone, and if you are, you’re probably bland.

I just find it hard to be controversial sometimes, but that is just me.

Great thoughts John.

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Stefanie Frank July 23, 2013 at 11:37 am

Marcus reading this made me realize that past criticisms are a big part of what’s holding me back today (not any longer though). Good grief man how do you always know what to write? Rhetorical question! Thanks for this post. :-)

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Marcus Sheridan July 24, 2013 at 1:39 pm

how do I know Stef? Simple, I think to myself, “What does Stef need to hear today….” ;-)

You rock,

Marcus

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Dan July 23, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Is that a picture of you holding a light bulb above your head?

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Marcus Sheridan July 24, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Hahaha, I’m not that good Dan ;-)

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Don Stanley July 23, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Two of my favorite guys, you and Mark Schaefer. You’re both real, caring and willing to take a genuine stand. And that’s why you’re making such a big difference in so many lives … including mine.

You hit on a super key point of success brother, the Pareto Principle or the law of the vital few. Most people know it as the 20-80 rule (though many are now saying it should be the 10-90 rule). I LOVE this principle and live by it.

In a nutshell, the principle says 20% of your efforts will produce 80% of your results. Apply the principle in two other ways:
>> 20% of your audience will love you/your product/your service and 80% will be lukewarm or not care at all.
>> 20% of your customers will make up 80% of your sales revenue (you’ll be amazed at how often this is true).

So who should we focus on serving?

It’s pretty easy to say the 20%. But the reality is the vast majority of people in business don’t spend time (or enough time) figuring out who their 20% is. They don’t identify and speak to the customers that love them, love their product, love their service.

Why not? It’s pretty simple really. We often set an impossible standard. We want EVERYONE to like us. I understand this … who doesn’t want to be liked by everyone? But it’s not smart or realistic.

While we all want to be liked by everyone, we must realize we need to serve the audiences that make up the foundation of success. We must find and serve our 20%.

When I work with clients, one of our first tasks is to identify the 20%. It amazes me how infrequently people take the time to do this. It’s not easy to do it but it’s always worth it. It gives you focus, purpose and magnifies your impact.

Thanks for the reminder that if you try to please all the people all the time, you’ll end up pleasing none of the people all of the time.

PS. I love that someone thought your TEDx talk was too passionate. That’s hilarious. They really need to see you in your natural element ;-)

Keep crashin’ it bro!
rhino

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Marcus Sheridan July 24, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Don, you are such a great writer bud. Seriously, you are, so take this comment, paste it on your blog, and get with it…because you rock. :-)

And thank YOU!

Marcus

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Don Stanley August 1, 2013 at 11:05 am

Done ;-) thanks bro

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Ryan Kaufman July 23, 2013 at 2:32 pm

hi Marcus

I love people who hate me for what I’m worth, do or say… at least, they’re honest in their appreciation :)

Plus, even negative publicity is beneficial, it drives word of mouth, and think about it – people who are used to go past folks who like bashing, are usually going to become your loyal fans.

I like non superficial thinkers, and men and women who always double check
before making assumptions or drawing conclusions…

Leaders are genuine and think in depth, on all aspects… as for me, I prefer to use my brain and my resources to get done the projects I’m involved with, and let nobody stop me.

Hope it helps!

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Marcus Sheridan July 24, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Ryan, love the confidence and security in knowing who you are…and appreciate you stopping by man!

Marcus

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Jeremy Abel July 23, 2013 at 7:12 pm

Hi Marcus,

Love this topic, and it really drives home the importance of knowing who you are, who you are not, and coming to terms with both characteristics as a person and as a business. It takes a hell of a lot of self-reflection, but through this process we can better define what sets us apart from the competition, and in what direction we are heading. Others are welcome to join us, so long as it fits their beliefs.

As the saying goes, “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

Great topic, Marcus. Keep changing lives.

Jeremy

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Marcus Sheridan July 24, 2013 at 1:23 pm

GREAT quote Jeremy! Serioulsy, thank you bud, and can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support. :-)

Marcus

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Jason Diller July 24, 2013 at 9:45 am

When I worked in finance, I was making about 200 phone calls per day. (Think boiler room, but legit)

During that time, I got one of the best pieces of advice I ever got.

“Diller, if you’re not getting hung up on twice per day, you’re not trying hard enough. Push…be yourself…be aggressive! You’ll get traction with the right prospects.”

I’m pretty aggressive and animated in person…kinda like Marcus, but without that bit of southern gentleman that makes Marcus so approachable (I’m from Northern New Jersey, about 10 minutes outside of NYC…we’re all a little obnoxious…)

At my agency, we are force-ranking every client every month based on how well they are fitting into our culture, strategy, etc. We are starting to realize that some of our clients just don’t fit into what we are trying to do (Thanks Paul from PR 20/20).

Cheers Marcus, great post.

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Marcus Sheridan July 24, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Jason, dude, I LOVED this comment. Really. And there are like 5 blog posts that need to be written from what you’ve said…Speaking of that, once you can truly identify the “right” and “wrong” client, hopefully you’ll explain those two groups on y’alls website. Trust me, this raises eyebrows and moves the needle.

Can’t wait to catch up soon buddy.

Marcus

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Mark Schaefer July 24, 2013 at 9:54 am

What a surprise and honor to be featured in your post today Marcus!

You’ve articulated something very important and powerful. I think what drives me — and I’m guessing you too — is that I deeply care. I really care about my work, my community and my broader blog audience. I’m not afraid of taking a stand because I want to help. I want to drive conversations and add critical thinking to the trends and issues of the day. It is a passion that cannot be contained by taking the safe way out all the time.

Being featured on your amazing blog is better than any Top 10 list : ) Much appreciated.

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Marcus Sheridan July 24, 2013 at 1:16 pm

That’s exactly it Mark. I think we both have a feel for our “why”–be it on the blogging end or the other communications we have.

But thanks for being so dang sincere in your ways man. Really appreciate you, and am enjoying the new podcast too.

Marcus

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Jossif Elefteriadis July 24, 2013 at 9:55 am

Hi Marcus,

I know I have let criticism pull me back, so thanks for sharing your story and how to overcome the negative statements and focus on the positive!

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Marcus Sheridan July 24, 2013 at 1:14 pm

My pleasure Jossif. It’s OK to listen and apply feedback…but only to a certain extent. You can’t lose your true self in the process.

Thanks for stopping by,

Marcus

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Sheryl Kurland July 24, 2013 at 9:56 am

What timing…I just hung up talking with a client and opened your email…The client told me that he’s going to be creating some marketing videos and he was told by an “expert” to tone down his presentation/speaking style. I said to the client, “Wait a minute. At the end of the day, who is the one speaker everyone remembers?…YOU!” I think Thought Leadership is also about being authentic, like you Marcus!

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Marcus Sheridan July 24, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Boy can experts really ruin individuality at times Sheryl!!

Good thing the client has YOU!! :-)

Marcus

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Ryan Hanley July 24, 2013 at 10:59 am

Marcus,

You can only be you bro…

This is such an important lesson, one I’m starting to really embrace now. If we’re anything but ourselves, then the spark dies, the fire never starts, never grows, we never burn bright.

We can’t be what people want us to be only what we are and the people who enjoy us will fan our flames until we roar (yes… I know that works both in my fire analogy and because you’re the sales lion).

From the look of the comments on this post your fire seems to be doing just fine.

Keep killin’ dude,

Hanley

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Marcus Sheridan July 24, 2013 at 1:08 pm

You are a perfect example of someone that comes to mind when I think about personal brand and being ‘you’ Ryan…Appreciate you bud.

Marcus

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iGoByDoc July 24, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Great post Marcus,

I think one other consideration would be for people looking for a new job.

Do not take the first offer you get just because you get the offer. It could be a bad fit. Also, if you know in your gut that you will not be happy at the job, it will not be rewarding, and you will not be able to grow or contribute the way you know you can, it will be a bad fit as well.

Thought I would throw my 2 cents in there.

Doc

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Tom Webster July 24, 2013 at 1:34 pm

Not for the weak and weary, indeed. But there is a simple test I like to apply, and it’s a practice–make no mistake (I’m certainly not perfect here.)

I am fine with a strident voice, a strong stance, and even unpopularity, as long as it stands *for* something, and not against something. I appreciate your blog, Marcus, because you stand for things. I don’t have a lot of time for strident voices that do little more than stand against things.

Where I’ve made the biggest mistakes in my own blogging, it has been by being on the wrong side of that distinction. But if I am on the right side? I can accept any and all consequences.

Great post.

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Davina K. Brewer July 24, 2013 at 5:14 pm

This is the core of ‘mass’ marketing failure, trying to be all things to all people. It’s a waste of time, counter productive. Worse still by trying to be what you’re not, you’ll not only NOT bring in new customers, you’ll alienate those loyal followers who appreciate who you truly are. Funny story about your TED talk (BTW I still owe you a post for that!) – I noticed you’d dialed it down; guess one person’s mellow is someone else’s high octane caffeine. :-)

I read about Apple all the time, speculation on a ‘cheaper’ entry level iToys – and the analysts calmly explaining that they don’t have to. 1) They already ARE doing that – by keeping older models around at discounted prices, no apologies for selling ‘lesser’ iPhones, iPads; and 2) It’s not them, not where their profits and margins are – they focus on the higher end that’s the right fit. FWIW.

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Johnny Bravo July 24, 2013 at 10:34 pm

Marcus I think a lot of it comes down to honesty. Like you mention in your TED talk, companies like McDonald’s embrace their honesty and do not fear the naysayers or those that could encroach on their business. Like them, you’ve done a great job of making your voice and your brand loud and clear. When someone works as hard as you to make a lasting impression on an industry there will always be those that say you’re too loud, too excited, and too out of the box. good job for sticking with it. It’s obviously worked.

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Cecil July 25, 2013 at 1:11 am

I find you truly Enthusiastic in all your dealings in life, that must be the ideal public talker and communicator. But, not all would concur to all our styles and presentation of our stuffs. Surely because of our individual idiosyncrasies, and we vary in our orientations in life. Therefore, we always anticipate that not all in the audience is like us, but never mind them, just keep sharing and communicating people of what you believe is best. Your faith and passion is more empowering.

I am your fan Marcus. Cheers!

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Terra Kaneko July 25, 2013 at 7:46 am

Please start displaying the dates on your blog posts – it’s incredibly annoying to come to a blog and have no idea how recent any of the information is. This is especially important on the internet, where information that’s a few months old could be completely out-of-date.

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Marcus Sheridan July 25, 2013 at 7:51 am

Seriously Terra? “Incredibly annoying???”

Well, I’d go into the science of why it’s good not to include dates in blog posts, but that would appear to be a fruitless action at this point.

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Sue | Life Coach July 25, 2013 at 10:05 am

Someone will like you, someone will hate you… Makes a lot of sense. You cannot please everyone so try not to live according to other’s expectations.

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Shamim July 26, 2013 at 8:25 am

Leader should not always think about what people are saying about him, not everyone will love him, but the leader should go ahead…

Great topic…keep it up

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Craig McBreen July 26, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Hi Marcus,

I like the post Todd Henry wrote the other day. Although his focus was on Thought Followers, I think it ties in nicely with what you are saying here …

“Immerse yourself in brilliant and beautiful thoughts of others, then follow them, savor them, and consider how they are relevant to the important problems you’re tasked with solving.”

Kind of sums up what I’ve been doing over the past two years: becoming fully immersed in the world of blogging and social. I’ve followed guys like you and Mark since the start, for good reason … it’s helped me streamline my message by observing and interacting with people who aren’t afraid to speak their mind. But what I really like is the absence of negativity and that you and Mark are always whittling your message down to a business-minded tone that helps others. A core essence.

To me, this kind of sums it up:
If you deliver a consistent, helpful, engaging narrative with a core message and a specific audience in mind, you’ll succeed online …

If you take a stand too … well then, you’ll simply blow past the competition … :)

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Lisa Gerber July 26, 2013 at 8:30 pm

I have a draft of a post called I Rock At Being Lisa Gerber. Lol. A lot of us might DO the same thing, but what makes us different is our style and our experiences. We are the ONLY ones who have our experiences. So you, dude, ROCK at being Marcus Sheridan.

And to build on that: It’s important to have the self confidence to know when to take constructive feedback and change behavior, and when to take it, thank them, and keep being you. I received some feedback on my last talk in DC and I though, “Huh. Interesting. Yeah no.” But I was gracious nevertheless. Thanks for the great post. I should finish that draft! :)

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Adam Kielich July 27, 2013 at 12:53 pm

There is definitely a huge rift in the value of quality content versus quantity content. In the legal field you can easily find websites churning out garbage content to have fresh content and try to build cheap backlinks (e.g. personal injury lawyers who “blog” every car accident reported in the area) versus those who publish content that either deals with actual legal news or writes content specific to what potential clients are looking for. I would be extremely surprised if that garbage content was really useful.

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Bryan Thompson July 30, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Marcus, it’s good to be back! And this is a great post on what it means to be a thought leader. It is stepping out onto nothing and being willing to risk some people disagreeing with you. In my experience, those “bad fit” experiences have to be released before you can truly move on to make any real impact. Whether it’s a negative disposition or unforgiveness (when dealing with people), those “bad fit” experiences can hold us back until we truly let go of them. Hope you’re well, my friend!

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Marcus Sheridan August 1, 2013 at 12:20 am

Bryan, great to see you brother!! Hope you and the fam are well!!

Best,

Marcus

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Kuldeep July 31, 2013 at 4:17 am

Hey Marcus, I’m your great fan dude. Whenever I visit your site I find something very interesting and informative. Keep going dude!

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Michael August 2, 2013 at 10:17 am

All of this is excellent advice for all walks of life. Take a stand, be okay with some people hating you, and remove bad fits. Love that picture.

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Gilbert Deacon August 7, 2013 at 6:03 am

Big two thumbs up, no maybe four, (including those on my feet) for the great marcus! You are a writer that sees through what his readers need. Keep up the great work!
Visit to know more

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qualities of a leader January 24, 2014 at 9:51 am

The nature of communication in the group also plays a significant part in determining what kind of person will be an effective leader. An individual will usually be regarded as a group leader when he has a central position in the communication network (Goldberg, 1955). In less highly structured groups, persons who initiate the most communication are likely to emerge as leaders

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