Can you be a thought leader without building a ‘thought leadership business’?

Experts often come to us because they want to achieve more with their business than just – to put it bluntly – making more money. The type of solopreneurs and intrapreneurs we typically partner with are those who have something bigger in mind: a real-world impact.

It’s natural then that they would gravitate towards thought leadership – especially our definition of thought leadership. 

When we talk about thought leadership, we mean the process of deepening your ideas, sharing them effectively, and building a reputation in your industry as a leader.

But what exactly does thought leadership mean for your business? How does it ensure you can sustainably and effectively continue to drive the impact you want? And if you engage in thought leadership, is that your ‘thing’ now, or can you use thought leadership simply as a tool?

Let’s get into what we call the ‘thought leadership spectrum’.

On one end of the spectrum, you have a ‘thought leadership business’.

For some, thought leadership is the lifeblood of their commercial model. These are the kind of businesses where the primary product is the IP of an individual (or group of individuals). The offerings, or the money-makers of the business, include many different forms of the same concept, framework, model, or practice.

For example, let’s say you are on a mission to improve wellbeing and mental health in workplaces. You’ve gathered years of expertise, and it’s resulted in a core set of principles, learnings, and strategies that you know help organisations create better environments when it comes to staff wellbeing. Those principles and strategies form the foundation of your IP. 

If you’re building a thought leadership business model, you would leverage and share this IP in a number of different revenue-generating formats, which might include:

  • A book 
  • An online course
  • Speaking engagements
  • Paid membership with access to resources, calls, and webinars
  • Workshops and facilitations
  • A podcast or sponsored blog

Each of these offerings would generate (mostly passive) income for your business. At this end of the spectrum, your content and thought leadership practice is at the centre of your commercial model. It also means that your ideas – and therefore your impact – extend to a wider group of people and at a larger scale.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who use thought leadership as a marketing tool.

For these folks, the business model is distinct from their thought leadership efforts. These businesses are typically selling 1-to-1 offerings, and put time and energy into sharing their ideas because:

  • They want a strong reputation that increases the frequency and quality of leads
  • They care about having a voice and an impact in their field

So, leaning on our previous example, you’re in the mental health and wellness space for workplaces. But you really just want your business to focus on what you do best – delivering coaching and strategy sessions for senior executives. You may still have a podcast, or write a book, or get speaking gigs – but now instead of positioning these assets as revenue-generators, they simply become tools to increase your presence and reputation in the market.

The drawback, of course, is that this side of the spectrum typically means you’re still trading time for money because you have very few passive income streams. It also means your impact is mostly contained to a select few – your high-paying customers. But, it also makes your sales model far simpler and probably more effective. Across all your thought leadership efforts, you’re driving towards the same target client with the same ideal offering.

And then there’s all the space in the middle of the spectrum

If we’re being honest, most of the time thought leaders exist somewhere between the two extremes. They might pick just a couple formats to focus on, while still maintaining their primary 1-to-1 coaching offering. Or, perhaps, they shift along the spectrum over time, responding to the market. Maybe, they wrote a book not intending for it to be a commercial asset – but then it leads to incredibly lucrative speaking engagements. 

The key for early thought leaders isn’t to make a hard-and-fast decision about their commercial model right away. Instead, we encourage clients to simply consider which side of the spectrum they would like to lean towards. Do you envision many passive, product-based offerings? Or do you want to stick with fewer, bespoke client relationships?

Once you picture your ideal business, you’ll be able to make clearer decisions about your thought leadership intentions. 

For many, it helps to consider where their superpower truly lies. If your zone of genius is in delivery more than developing systems or frameworks, you might be more suited to the bespoke side of the spectrum. If you know your ideas and your teachings are really what change the game for people, then putting your effort towards books and courses, content and training is likely going to take your impact further.

No matter where you are on your thought leadership journey, it’s important to check in about how your time, your efforts, and your offerings actually support the business – and the impact – you want to create. 

Where on the spectrum do you see yourself? And is it where you want to be in five years’ time?