Are you being called to thought leadership?

Should I just give up?

How do I know if I’m onto something and should keep going?

Chances are high that if you’re building thought leadership – working towards leading with your thinking – you may have asked yourself this. The same goes for any significant project. If you’re pouring considerable time and energy into something, you want it to be the ‘right’ thing. You want it to prove worthwhile and enable you to get the outcome or have the impact you’re really wanting to have.

Thought leadership definitely falls into this camp; it’s a journey – a slow burn. It requires showing up, constantly and consistently, in service of your ideas and the people you are here to help. It requires you to get uncomfortable, open yourself up to potentially being wrong, extend yourself and continuously provide value to others. So, you can guarantee that it’s going to take some time and energy. You want to know you’re in the right place.  

Piñata or dead horse?

When you start building thought leadership, or doing anything new that is even a little bit tricky, it can feel like you’re putting in a lot of hard work that isn’t getting you anywhere. One of our lovely friends and clients described it recently as swinging at a piñata – you know, those dangly cardboard animals that one might hang from a tree branch at a birthday party.

To borrow her analogy: “When the first few children at the party hit the piñata nothing will happen. They may feel frustrated and defeated. But if they keep going, with every new hit, they’ll get closer to breaking it and enjoying the flood of candy that follows.”

Her point was that you don’t know which hit is going to release the good stuff and bring the rewards. This sounds good, in theory. However, I’ve definitely experienced situations (and seen others in the situation too) where I realised I was simply flogging a dead horse.

Two narratives competing

You’ll recognise this tension, no doubt. On the one hand, we’ve been told to ‘keep going’, ‘keep trying’, ‘never give up’, and that ‘failure is not an option’. We’re told we need to push harder, dig deeper and eventually the pay-off (which may or may not be literal lollies) will come. For many of us, this is a deeply-ingrained story that’s followed us from a young age. The growth mindset has been encouraged by all those around us, and some version of this story likely forms one of our powerful core beliefs.  

Yet more recently, there’s another narrative that’s emerging too. It’s the gentler and more intuitive idea of following the energy, trusting your gut and allowing what you feel to lead you. This idea includes knowing when to walk away, putting down what’s not for you and overall, being kinder to yourself.

This second narrative has allure and is resonating, but that familiar first one seeks to undermine it. The result is that we end up with tension and confusion. So, how do we find a happy medium between the two?

An example in action

In the Preface to her book Beyond Burnout, Suzi McAlpine describes sitting on the bed in her hotel room in New York – fresh out of the shower, with dripping wet hair – and realising that the initial book that she had intended to write (and that she was halfway around the world doing research and interviews for) was actually not the book that she was meant to be writing. Something had been gnawing at her, but she’d ignored her inner voice. That day she made the decision to return home and let her book-writing aspirations take another direction.

Later, Suzi went on to write Beyond Burnout, which I was lucky to have a front-row seat in supporting her to do. Suzi herself admits that “it was bloody hard” at times. There were personally-confronting aspects and internal mountains to climb, as well as big demands on her time on top of parenting and running a business full-time. But, she says, there was also a momentum and energy that propelled and pulled her towards writing and publishing this book. As she describes it, the book “had a different energy to my first book topic mis-step.” It wasn’t just Suzi’s head that believed this book was the right idea. My gut and my heart also felt strongly aligned to this project. Little nudges from the universe seemed to show up too, to tell me this was the right project and my book to write.”  

And, if that all sounds a little woo-woo, another client – the fabulous Daria Williamson – took perhaps a more pragmatic approach to describing the energy. “One scenario feels like it’s driving you forward,” she explained. “But it feels like striving or grinding. The other feels like it’s drawing you forward. It’s asking you to be bigger, play bigger, think bigger. It expands you and that’s still scary – you encounter many kinds of hard – but you really want it.”

We’ve had our own experiences of this too

At Intelligent Ink, we’ve also had experiences – both positive and negative – of when we’re onto something, and when we haven’t got it quite right. Our incredible programme that teaches people how to write, launch and leverage their books, The Better Book Project, is our piñata. We nearly gave up many times, but we didn’t and there have proven to be SO MANY sweets in there.

However, another recent story isn’t quite so sweet. We were putting together an event for a network of successful entrepreneurs that would deliver value, while also showcasing what we do best. We were co-hosting it with another business (who of course had their own drivers), but the greater challenge came from the fact that we’d specified – many months ahead of the event – a rough outline for what we would cover. Our mistake was treading too close to this originally proposed (and not totally thought-through) outline, when we should have put it down and gone where we felt was right.

As the date of the event approached and we kicked into content creation, the reluctance was palpable. But still we pressed forward. We believed that we could make it work. Even on the morning of the event itself, our usually-enthused Verity (who was pegged to present our material) was feeling apprehension. She did it, and it went… OK. Verity herself did a great job, but it didn’t really land how we needed it to, and how we know it could have. We under-played our hand and didn’t make the most of a once-a-year opportunity in front of this audience.

The verdict

It’s clear there’s some tension here – and that this is more keenly felt by those who are ambitious and driven. (Hence why I’m writing this for aspiring thought leaders!)

The verdict, however, isn’t cut and dry. Suzi could have continued on with her original book idea and, knowing her as I do, I don’t doubt that she would have made it a success. We still made a sale and gained several new leads from the event that I described. However, the experience could have been different, in both cases, if we were playing with that different energy.

There’s an ease that comes from being in alignment. It doesn’t mean it’s easy – but there’s joy, meaning and purpose. This brings focus and clarity. It reduces internal resistance and you feel a sense of ‘rightness’ and fulfilment whether you’re at the beginning of the journey, somewhere in the middle or nearing the end.

So how do you find that alignment?

I recently read Tara Mohr’s book ‘Playing Big’, and particularly love her list of eight ways to recognise your calling. To me, they absolutely mirror thought leadership, and can help us in solving the dilemma I’ve outlined here.  

Here’s Tara’s list of ‘Eight ways to recognise a calling’, with my additional thoughts in italics.

  1. You feel an unusually vivid pain or frustration around the status quo of a particular issue. This is the spark that lights the fire for the best thought leaders.
  2. You see a powerful vision – vague or clear – about what could be around some aspect of the status quo. That vision keeps coming back into your mind and keeps tugging at your heart. We call this a ‘vision towards better’. It’s usually something you can’t quite leave alone. You just know something could be improved and how.
  3. You feel huge resistance. A part of you wants to run in the other direction. Here’s the ‘reluctant thought leader’ archetype through and through.  
  4. You feel a sense of “this work is mine to do,” or of having received an assignment to do a particular piece of work in the world. For thought leaders, this often comes when they have personal experience in their area of expertise. Either the thing that they’re solving or rallying against has happened to them, or they’ve worked with many others to help them solve this challenge. And although it seems like this contradicts point #3, combined these create the ‘scary, but I still need to go there’ feeling. I’ve heard this described as “the want to change eventually outweighing the comfort of staying put.” 
  5. There are challenges, fears, and doubts, but when you are actually doing the calling, you feel a rare sense of meaning and rightness. When you do it, you tap into an immense well of energy. This feels like the exact experience we’ve seen play out above.
  6. You don’t – yet – have everything you need to have to complete the task. Some growth and learning is required in building thought leadership.
  7. You aren’t – yet – the person you need to be to complete the assignment. You’ll need to develop personal qualities you don’t yet have in the amounts or ways this task requires. Again, you know that there will be growth and learning involved. You’ll develop greater discipline, humility and positive stories about yourself as you go.
  8. The journey is the reward. You enjoy the process along the way rather than feeling as if you have to “just get through” the steps to reach the end goal or final stage. Of course, you want to reach that mega-impact, fully-leveraged thought leader utopia, but you’re also showing up regularly, consistently providing value, evolving your thinking, learning new skills and being challenged – and you feel joy in that also. 

Sounds pretty good (and relatively simple) when you put it that way, right?

We embark on big projects or take significant action for a range of reasons, but it’s easier to keep going when it feels like we are truly called to do it. Sometimes you ‘just know’, but if you’d like more help to figure out whether something is right, and how you take meaningful steps forward, we’d love to help.