Thought leadership is an increasingly vital driver of business success. It’s also an emerging discipline in its own right. Our ability to understand its core practices and then, effectively apply them is the key to positioning ourselves and our companies for next level growth.

That’s why I was so in interested in “How to Become a Thought Leader,” a new study on thought leadership from RainToday.com. While RainToday specializes in providing advice, insight and tools for professional services organizations, it’s clear that the advice in this report is relevant to everyone who provides a complex solution. Indeed, we are all being asked to be more consultative — and offer greater perspective on the direction of our respective fields, industries and markets.

The study, which draws on the perspectives of recognized thought leaders such as Marshall Goldsmith, Martha Rogers, Michael McLaughlin, Bruce Marcus and Brian Carroll, offers guidance and best practices to help you elevate yourself and your company in the marketplace.

I’m intrigued by the report’s simple equation: successful thought leadership = passion for a subject + relevance to an audience + market reach. “You can’t go after a market without something authentic and valuable to offer, without something spun from the passion you hold for your area of expertise…and you can’t continue to teach others and sustain your business as a whole without developing an ongoing relationship with your market,” write Mike Schultz, Andrea Meacham Rosal and Rebecca Gould, the report’s authors. “One without the other just doesn’t work.”

The authors point to several key benefits for a business (or an individual) that embraces thought leadership. Among the benefits they cite:

  • Greater recognition, demand and reach in the market;
  • Easier business development, with more desirable clients;
  • Appreciation inside your firm;
  • Higher speaking fees;
  • Less market “push” and more market “pull.”

The payoff in terms of business development strikes me as particularly notable. Thought leadership, as the report states, can shorten sales cycles, lead to higher quality conversations, increase perceived value (and fees), reduce customer pushback and give you access to higher level decision makers within a prospective account.

The discipline of thought leadership depends on a commitment to invest one’s time, energy and resources in a series of key activities that will engage your prospective clients and raise your profile in the marketplace. In terms of reaching your market, the authors point to several possible thought leadership vehicles:

  • Public speaking
  • Writing articles
  • Writing white papers
  • Publishing a blog
  • Conducting research
  • Writing a book
  • Participating in industry associations
  • Appearing in online webinars/webcasts/podcasts
  • Building relationships with the press and other key influencers

While some business leaders may just become thought leaders as a product of their market success, the more common scenario is that thought leadership will precede market leadership. Moreover, one can’t become a thought leader in this sense without a rigorous and disciplined commitment to the endeavor. You are most likely to “find success on the path to thought leadership if you set it as a goal, and then work to achieve it,” the authors state.

That’s a key point. In our era of deafening marketing noise and confusion, it’s critical that we take the steps necessary to truly engage our prospective clients, give them insight into best and worst practices in the field, and offer our vision of where the market is headed. They are not simply buying our products or services anymore. They are buying our path to business results and our far-seeing guidance along that path.