We are hearing the term thought leader a lot these days, and they are very important in organisations and the world that we live in, because they help move us forwards. But how do you recognise a thought leader? What is a thought leader? And if you come across one in your practice, how do you deal with them?
The way I think of thought leaders is that they are people who have ideas and see solutions ahead of other people - sometimes even months or years ahead.
They highly value automony, which allows them to explore their own unique awareness and perspective unpressured by the people around them, who want them to see things their own way.
Unless they are working in a company that tries to hire thought leaders, they will probably feel like outliers.
Thought leaders see things differently. They are hardwired to see things differently. It is not a choice, it is just the way they are.
Plus some of them are probably highly sensitive - we have talked about that in another video. High sensitivity will expand on their capacity to notice things that other people don't notice.
They may find it difficult to articulate what it is they do that other people find useful. And they may be bemused when other people laugh at or do not understand the ideas and solutions that seem so obvious to them.
If a thought leader does not recognise themselves as a thought leader and just has this capacity to see things that other people do not see, without realising it is valuable, this can be very confusing to them. They can think, "I don't understand why I am so different."
They very often have wide-ranging interests in arenas that seem totally unconnected. For example, music and medicine and construction. We might think they are not connected, but for them it makes perfect sense and they see the connections between them, This allows them to come to solutions that nobody else would have come up with because they do not see things in quite the same way.
They typically have an abiding passion for their work when they are doing the work that is most relevant to them, because they resonate with it so deeply, and it is so much a part of them.
The biggest thing is that unless they are working in a company that tries to hire thought leaders, they will probably feel like outliers. Most corporations need everyone moving together in the same direction. An established corporation with an established product, who are trying to keep a solid foundation and have replicable quality of product every time it goes out the door - a thought leader is going to disrupt that!
How to coach hidden thought leaders
First and foremost you want to help your client to get comfortable with the way in which they are different. Champion them. Help them see the benefits that have come out of those ways that they are different.
Once you have helped them recognise it within themselves, help them work on their communication with other people. If we come into a room and we are hunched and hiding and tentative and unsure, that makes other people work harder and they are going to be uncomfortable with it.
If we can come into a room recognising our own value, first and foremost, then we can say to people, "Here is what I see. It is going to be different to the way you see it, but here is why it is valuable. I know it might make you feel uncomfortable, but lets look at this for a minute and think about how this might be helpful."
In this way, they can help other people around them understand what is valuable about them. They can help other people see the power of the ideas they bring, and to value what is different about them that will challenge the status quo.
They can also bring new levels of depth and breadth in terms of the kinds of conversations they are able to have in teams. And by sharing their ideas in this way, they can move us forward in ways that we hadn't even expected or known that we needed to go.
Tools for working with hidden thought leaders
Here are some of the tools that I have found really helpful as I have helped some of these clients step more fully into their power.
The Innovation Strengths Preference Indicator (ISPI) is a tool that helps people understand where they are on a continuum from builder to pioneer.
Builders are the very step-by-step, risk-averse, structured kind of people. The accountants of the world that help a company create a solid stable base and help send the same product at the same quality out the door, on time, every day. They ensure things are solid and replicable and this is important in all organisations.
Compare this with the pioneers who have ideas all over the place. They may not come into work at the same time every day. They love risk - they may not even see it as risk. They do things in ways that other people would never think of doing them. They may be working on something at four a.m. because when their creativity hits they are going to want to run with it.
These two different types of people find it very difficult to understand each other and talk to each other because they see the world so differently.
And yet, if they can understand that each of them has a really valuable role to play, then they can start to look at how they can work together and how they can support each other. "What I do helps you and does not hinder you, what you do doesn't drive you crazy and make me want to walk out of the room, and we can both move forwards together for the benefit of a greater good."
If you are not a thought leader yourself, it does not mean you cannot work with these kinds of people. Just help them to understand how they are different from you and what is valuable about their difference.
Another tool I have used with clients is called the circle role play. I use this when a client is trying to communicate with people on their team and they are struggling, and thinking, "I just don't know how to say this? They don't get me. They are always trying to stonewall me. I don't know how to do this?"
To help with that kind of thinking, set up a circle of chairs. I have done this exercise over the phone and in person. Help the client think about a meeting they are going in to, or a conversation they want to have. Help them put the people who will be at the meeting in those chairs mentally.
Invite them to speak to those people the way they really want to speak, no holds barred. Stress that no-one is going to hear except them and their coach. They get to say exactly what they want to say in exactly the way they want to say it.
Out of that I have seen amazing insights happen: "Oh, he won't get that, but if I say that this way..." This exercise automatically helps people learn how to better express what it is they want to say.
If you have these clients, when they are in the flow of offering what is unique about them, it is so powerful to work with them.
Another tool that I have used, that was amazing to me, is what I would call a customised 360. I am sure you are all familiar with a standard 360 where there is a standard process and the questions are all established and well-researched.
A customised 360 is where you and your client together, identify what questions that client would most like to have answered, and who he would like to hear those answers from. Plus you can include some people he/she had not thought of so that you get a wider perspective.
You go out and talk to those people yourself as the coach - half an hour with your set of questions. Design with the client ifthey will know who gave which answers, or if the culture they are in is such that they want anonymity. It is totally designed by, with, and for the client.
I have had amazing client feedback doing that. For instance, it helps them to understand how others see them in ways they did not realise. "Yes you are different, absolutely, but that is what we most value about you. You bring something to the conversation that nobody else brings. Please don't stop. Just because you feel uncomfortable because you are different, please don't stop."
These are some of the things that have worked for me, but the key here is to follow the lead of your client. If you are not a thought leader yourself, it does not mean you cannot work with these kinds of people. If you are a builder - very step-by-step and structured - that is a really important role that may be helpful for your thought leader client. Just help them to understand how they are different from you and what is valuable about their difference.
If you have these clients, they bring something so important to the world, and when they are in the flow of offering what is unique about them, it is so powerful to work with them. Good luck and enjoy them. They are going to be some of the most fun clients you ever have. And if I can be of any help, feel free to get in touch, I'd be happy to help.
This interview has minor edits for clarity.
Deborah Huisken an executive coach who helps business people understand and leverage their uniqueness. dancingstar.com