I often get asked about how you can launch a career as a thought leader.  Rather than keep the discussion general and vague, I’ve waited for an opportunity to talk through a particular example.  Dr. Vince Molinaro, a long-time friend and client, recently agreed to become that example.  Here’s our combined story of how one thought leadership career took off.

Thought leadership is what keeps organizations agile, adaptive, and in business.  In a knowledge-based world, it’s how you outthink the competition.  In Vince’s case, that took the form of The Leadership Contract – a hard-hitting, tough-love body of work that challenges business executives to step up and be accountable.

Developing thought leadership talent is still a novel concept for many organizations and it’s not something that can be implemented overnight.  Back in 2011, Vince’s goal was to expand his organization’s service offerings throughout North America. It was new territory and a market already dominated by consulting heavy-weights. Vince knew that innovative ideas and industry expertise were his competitive advantage and the only way to make an entrance. Vince hired us at Public Words, a specialized communications company. Together we developed a strategy that would launch Vince onto the world stage as a thought leader so that he could expand the reach of his corporate services.

“I understood the value of thought leadership very early in my career,” says Vince. “When I was 26, I started my own consulting firm providing career management services. I began to write brief articles and got the attention of an editor of a local newspaper. She gave me a regular slot. I immediately found that it built my credibility and the process of writing helped me refine my thinking. I was invited to speak at conferences and found the same thing happened. It built my credibility and I got more speaking opportunities and consulting work. The formula became very clear.”

In North America in particular, ideas are big business. Organizations are hungry for leaders who can share their innovations, best practices, and inspiring insights. “I had industry expertise,” say Vince, “But I needed to create a platform and find a way to get my ideas out there.”

We tell our clients what we told Vince:  if you are going to be taken seriously as a thought leader and keynote speaker, then you need to write a best-selling book.  You need a great speech; you need to be a charismatic speaker; you need to establish your own personal brand; you need to build a community; you need to connect with people; you need to connect with the press; you need to connect with other thought leaders. The business of thought leadership is an industry in itself and doesn’t tolerate amateurs. It takes serious commitment, investment and hard work. Not everyone makes it.

That’s always my opening gambit, and it is intentionally discouraging. The best thought leaders have an eye on the marketplace but do what they do because they genuinely want to improve their corner of the world.  Passion for the subject must drive the thought leader or they won’t go the distance – passion and discipline.  I’ve seen both the successes and failures hinge on those qualities over the 20 years I’ve been President of Public Words.  People need to understand how difficult it is to make an impression. It’s a full-time job, not a hobby.

Vince has both passion and discipline. He studies leadership, writes about leadership, and is himself a leader of a multi-national organization. He advises and collaborates with other leaders to discover and share best practices. His passion for accountable leadership is clear.

Vince worked with us at Public Words to turn his ideas into a New York Times bestselling book, a keynote speech and multiple product offerings — as well as a growing community of people who cared about good leadership. Vince’s business unit expansion exceeded all expectations and the firm was soon at the receiving end of a multi-million dollar acquisition.

The work and research continues. The Leadership Contract is now in its third edition and is accompanied by a practical Field Guide. It’s influencing leaders around the world to stand up and be accountable.

“It’s not you who defines you as a thought leader. It’s the market. If you can create valuable insights that help people and companies be better and more successful, then you will be seen as a thought leader. People want to connect with the originators of ideas,” says Vince.  “They don’t value vanilla content marketing.  They want to know the ideas are anchored on research, consulting practice or experience, not based on a company chasing whatever topic is trending on twitter.”

During his long career, Vince has been part of twelve acquisitions, three start-ups and many moves and integrations.  This real-world experience has stood him in good stead as he navigates the world of thought leadership – about leadership – around the globe.

If you’re thinking about jumping into thought leadership on a topic that matters to you, keep these three guidelines in mind:

1.Thought leadership is a long-term commitment and a full-time job, not a hobby and not a quick fix.

2.Thought leadership benefits both the individual leader and the organization, but the time commitments mean that you need to get clear on the rules of engagement from the start.

3.Thought leadership is not about advertising the company you work for; it is about developing a strong point of view on a topic that’s important to the company and helpful to the company’s customers.

Done right, thought leadership can make an important contribution to your career, your organization, and the industry you’re part of.

Please help Vince push mediocre leaders to do better by taking his survey, here.  To connect with Vince about leadership, visit his website, here.  To connect with Public Words about developing your own thought leadership, go to www.publicwords.com, and click ‘contact’.






  1. Another great thought leadership piece, Dr Nick – you certainly practice what you preach!

    An unapologetically lengthy and (hopefully) provocative question if I may…
    I get that thought leadership isn’t something that happens overnight.
    That said, your headline gave the impression that you might provide a method of determining whether an aspiring thought leader had the potential to become one, given the acceptance of and commitment to “the road less travelled.”

    My specific question: Are there metrics that determine the likelihood of thought leadership success? i.e. build more of [insert magic formula] and you have a better than average chance of becoming a thought leader.

    Some Background:
    Social media pundits will talk about the “size of your tribe” as measured by Followers, Likes, Retweets, Shares, etc. Business tycoons will point to proven commercial success. Wealthy individuals will (indirectly) refer to the size of an asset pool. Political pundits will say the number of votes received is all that matters. In your Public Words world, you might refer to citations or invitations to speak or speaker fees.

    But what if all those metrics are essentially meaningless?

    Reason for Asking:
    There is a growing cohort (millennials and the like) who believe that the fundamentals of Western civilisation are flawed and that our measures of success require an update.

    If they have a point, what characteristics/traits/skills/mindset are required to establish thought leadership in a world where existing measures of success mean little to nothing?

    Asking as an early Gen X’er, what would it take to become a thought leader to our future leaders: Gen Y and later?

    I suspect there’s no easy answer. Perhaps I could simply plant a seed for a future article?

    Appreciate your work.

    Aspiring Gen Y Thought Leader
    With 17k Medium followers,
    Hoping to tap into the energy of movements like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Never_Again_MSD
    To support the birthing of a new social contract: http://society4.co

    1. Miachael — thanks for a great and fascinating set of questions (and comment). The quick answer to your narrowest question (Are there metrics that determine the likelihood of thought leadership success?) — no, not literally. The sorts of metrics you suggest — size of your tribe metrics — are probably better described as results of success, not pointing to its likelihood. Are you more likely to succeed if you have a gigantic tribe, lots of community involvement, and tons of views on YouTube? Well, certainly. But you won’t be likely to have those things until you put the work in (without much support initially) to begin to provide some helpful thought leadership.

      Now, your larger questions about what constitutes success (and its measurements) are more important and harder to answer. Is it numbers, financial success, or fame? Or is it something like “students” — people who are indeed inspired by your thought leadership to change their thinking, do something different, and change the world? My ultimate measure is implied by my first book title — the only reason to give a speech is to change the world. Now, that’s a successful outcome of thought leadership in my estimation — changing the world. But there are many, many ways to do that, and that’s only the beginning of a longer discussion about what it means to change the world, for whom, and in what way.

      1. Appreciate your reply, Nick, and I love that you have referred to a longer discussion about what it means to change the world, for whom and in what way.

        I’d appreciate your thoughts (when you have a chance) on a model we’ve developed to track the evolution of humanity through (so far) 3 phases. The model then shows how we could “change the world for everyone” to the 4th phase.

        Society 0.1: Pre-Society — Circa 2m years ago
        Society 1: Agricultural — Circa 10,000BC
        Society 2: Industrial — Circa 1760–1960’s (200 years)
        Society 3: Digital — Circa 1950–today (68 years)
        Society 4: From circa 2010

        We are basically trying to create a framework from which the cohort I referred to in my previous message (essentially millennials) can understand how humans evolve and how they can shape what the next form of society might be).

        Would love your thoughts: https://medium.com/society4/evolution-of-societies-93a5f0f9b31

  2. Nick,

    Thank you for a thought provoking article. When I do think of thought leaders I think about Marshall Goldsmith. Marshall is considered one of the 50 thought leaders in the word.

    Becoming a thought leader has and continues to be one of the character traits that I strive to be recognized for. As a speaker in both public health and leadership development, my main goal is to get people to first think and second to think differently after attending one of my presentations.

    Reviewing your list of what you need to have to be taken seriously as a thought leader, the one item, connecting with people has become a part of my branding. The other items are a work in progress.

    My branding is The Practitioner. I believe that we become not only what we think about, quoting Earl Nightingale and the Strangest Secret, but also what we practice.

    Thank you for allowing me to share.
    Lee Livermore, The Practitioner
    Making positive and meaningful connections

    1. Thanks, Lee — sounds like your thoughtful, patient approach to developing your thought leadership is working. I appreciate the comment.

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