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On Being Bold: Thought Leadership and Why It Is Risk/Reward

iStock_000009913938XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson and Nicki Gilmour (New York City)

Thought Leadership is creative, progressive and often full of risks as you need your team to follow through on your vision, whether it is the next innovation of a product or just a process that needs to be improved.

“If you’re scared of offending people, don’t be a thought leader,” said Nicki Gilmour, Founder and Publisher of The Glass Hammer at a panel discussion on thought leadership.

The event hosted by Barclays Capital‘s Women’s Initiative Network and the YWCA of the City of New York was entitled “How to be a Thought Leader.” Along with Gilmour, the panel featured Carol Hymowitz, Editorial Director for ForbesWoman, and Barbara Jones, Editorial Director of Hyperion Books and VOICE. The event was moderated by Monica Hanson, Head of Financial Institutions Debt Capital Markets at Barclays Capital.

By the end of the discussion, Hanson summed up what makes a thought leader: freedom from worry about criticism, energy to put your plans in motion, and the intellectual curiosity to think about how the status quo could be better and to come up with innovative new ideas.

Yes, all of these things do describe thought leaders – plus the ability to effectively communicate your ideas and plans.

As Gilmour said, “You do have to have an appetite for risk.”

Sticking Your Neck Out for What You Believe

Convincing others to follow you requires a few key traits – good ideas, good communication skills, and a proven ability to deliver on commitments – credibility. But in the end, it all comes down to risk and respect.

When you take a big risk to put your big idea into motion, your energy and passion and commitment to your idea convinces the people who respect you to come on board, and make that risk with you. When that big risk delivers, they’ll respect you more as a leader. As their respect for you grows, so does your confidence and ability to undertake risky endeavors. It’s a big risk-respect feedback loop.

Not every risk delivers the outcome you intended though. But, as Jones said, “If people know what your point of view is, your authentic voice, your values, they will come back to you.” True leadership takes vision, the ability to see the whole picture. The risk you take sits on a broad spectrum of negative and positive outcomes.

While you may fear the outcome if you fail, Gilmour said, “don’t dwell on it. What if you do really well?”

Leadership in Practice – Risk and Innovation

Risk, respect, communication, innovation – these are all big ideas. And as Hymowitz said at the Barclays Capital panel, “You can’t just be sitting around with grand ideas.” The real risk and respect one gains as a leader comes from putting ideas into practice.

We asked one of our heroes, Marie Wilson, President and Founder of The White House Project, to tell us her thoughts on leadership. She recalled an example of when she took a risk that paid off, affirming her status as a true leader.

She said, “Over 12 years ago, when we launched The White House Project, we convened a group of thought leaders from various fields to help us with how we tackled our mission to advance women’s leadership, especially in politics. We convened a group of thought leaders: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, former Dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications; playwright Wendy Wasserstein; and George Stephanopolis were among the group. Kathleen was clear that we had to ‘change the perception of women as leaders.’ This general direction set our work on a trail of a cutting edge thought leadership concept, beginning with consultant Tom Cosgove’s idea of a ballot that would be broadly distributed and that would feature twenty diverse women who could be president. Americans would be asked to ‘vote’ for their choice, and the winners would be featured on the front of Parade Magazine.”

She continued, “This venture was cutting edge because it took a multidisciplinary approach that is now de rigeur in our current 24-hour news cycle, with blogging and social media being the way that most people under 35 get their news. But over a decade ago, this endeavor involved innovation, risk taking, using the media and taking on the many critics who said how embarrassed women would be to see themselves on such a ballot.”

But they took the risk, and did it anyway. Wilson explained, “Trusting in our own thought leadership, and Kathleen Jamieson’s mandate that the perception of women leaders needed to be changed, we did it anyway, and it started a national conversation about women, the presidency and leadership. In the end, the only disgruntled folks were the women who called to ask why they were NOT on this ballot.”

Wilson said she’s proud of the risk they took – even over a decade later. And it’s certainly changed the game for women in leadership. She said, “Since then ‘thought leadership,’ pushing the envelope, paying attention to trends, and coming up with new ways of framing issues affecting women and girls, have been some of the most effective ways to use new thinking to change the perception of women leaders in this country.”

She concluded with a note about the value of new technology for spurring innovation and building leaders:

“This has been a movement that I have been a part of, and that I now see is fueled by the incredible opportunities blogging and connecting to constituencies via social media has opened up. The conversation about women leaders can be constant, and our thought leadership about how to achieve a critical mass of women in leadership across sectors in this country can be disseminated wider than we ever imagined when we started TWHP. From now on thought leadership is tied in to technological innovation in the media and I for one, am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it!”