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“5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry” With Author Phil La Duke

Calling yourself a thought leader is like calling yourself People magazine’s sexiest man alive. Most if not all will find that this is a dubious claim. I know a man who has his title as “the foremost expert on…in the world.” Maybe he is, but by publicly proclaiming himself as such he comes off as […]

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Calling yourself a thought leader is like calling yourself People magazine’s sexiest man alive. Most if not all will find that this is a dubious claim. I know a man who has his title as “the foremost expert on…in the world.” Maybe he is, but by publicly proclaiming himself as such he comes off as a pompous ass. Is the term trite? I think to some extent “trite” is in the eye of the beholder, is it overused? I think a lot of people who are out there claiming to be thought leaders are painting targets on their backs, but if I were to describe someone else as a thought leader that is, in my opinion, under used.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing author Phil La Duke. Phil La Duke is an internationally noted thought leader on worker safety, culture change, and organisational development. La Duke has been named one of the 101 most influential people in safety globally, is an editorial advisor and contributor to numerous prestigious publications. In addition to his writing credits, La Duke is a highly sought after speaker and consultant on safety and organisational change topics. Author of I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Phil! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I have been what’s been come to be known as a “life-long learner”.My sister teases me about sitting around reading encyclopedias when I was a kid. I was reading before kindergarten and my local library waived the “no more than 5 books at a time” for me because I could, and would read nine children’s books in a day. I jumped from Dr. Suess to grown up books (not to be confused with Adult books) and started reading the classics, reasoning that if it was a classic at least someone thought it was worth reading. When I was in third grade I was reading at a junior in college reading level. Eventually I began writing, first for my school newspaper, than I ran an underground high school newspaper, then college, and eventually at a small community newspaper. You won’t get rich writing and I needed to be self sufficient, but I always regretted leaving writing behind and eventually came back to it. I write a worker safety blog, about magazine contribution a week, and am working on a third book. All of this on my “free time” which isn’t much given that I am a principal consultant at a global consultancy.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

I wasn’t the first person to identify me as an authority, or as a thought leader, but I have been repeatedly referred to as such. I was approached by Thinkers360.com to be one of their thought leaders and score in the top 20 in most of their topics, similiarily Expertfile.com lists me as one of their experts. I have been cited in 6 doctoral dissertations that I know of, 4 books, and literally more articles than I can count. I am also a very reflective person and have given much thought to exactly what does it mean to be a thought leader.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I live in a suburb of Detroit and spend a lot of time in the city (even before most people thought I was insane for doing so) I worked with an extremely talented editor who had an affinity for Detroit, and when I pitched a story to him about one of Detroit’s most iconic stores, Henry The Hatter, being forced out because the city’s rejuvenation made the property so much more valuable than it had been for the 65 years it had stood on that spot he greenlit a story about the situation that story, and others in the local media grew into a movement and the store was offered a once-in-a-lifetime deal on a better site in a better location. I was invited to the ribbon cutting and got to spend 45 minutes talking to (Four Tops Founder) Duke Fakir talking about hats. It was so rewarding to see something I wrote inspire (in part) the owners to keep going. Ironically, business is doing better in the new building and the old building sits vacant two years after Henry the Hatter moved.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well it was more scary than funny at the time, but I can laugh about it now. It was my first day as a professional writer — -well the first day that I had to post a story before deadline. Even though mainstream papers had moved to digital word processors I was still hammering out stories on a manual typewriter onto actual newsprint. I wrote an article of which I was really proud. I felt like a real writer and what’s more a journalist. A few days after I submitted it to my editor I got it back. It was hacked to pieces and taped back together, he had used a wax pencil to ex out entire paragraphs and changed sentence structure and word choices. I read it in horror thinking my first story had cost me my job. On the last page he had scrawled a note: “nice job Phil!” I was genuinely confused so I went to him and asked him if he was being serious. He said, “Absolutely, one of the best first efforts I have ever seen; you are really talented.” I screwed up my courage and asked him, why, if it was so good, did he change it so much. He explained to me that reporters and editors develop a rapport where each party starts to get a feel for what the other likes. He told me that every editor has a particular style and the writer can either buck that style or adopt it. He and his successor taught me a lot, especially not to take changes or criticism personally. I tell people, “I get paid to write, not argue”.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

A thought leader makes you rethink your most cherished beliefs; he or she may not change your mind, but a good thought leader will at least get you to do some soul searcher. An influencer is more subtle, people might for instance see a particular movie because a movie critic likes it, but the person probably isn’t going to rethink the entertainment value of movies in general or whether or not you enjoy a particular genre. Influencers nudge the decision making process and thought leaders expose us to points of view and innovations that we had never considered.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

Companies value thought leaders. For a company to continue to grow and adapt in a dynamic business environment it needs people who are on the forefront of the next big trend not someone on the tail end of things. As Albert Einstein said, “You can’t solve problems using the same thinking that created them;” this is the real value of thought leadership.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Certainly. Thought leaders tend to be forward facing thinkers they are continually learning and reflecting on trends both globally and industry-specific. Imagine the value of being able to predict a political upheaval in a part of the world that is integral to your supply chain? Or having someone on staff adroit at taking two seemingly unrelated innovations and combining them into a powerful new offering. In consulting, which is what I do, you can’t just be telling people what everyone else is doing. You have to come up with exciting new techniques and processes that not only solve a client’s pain points, but also position them to be leaders in their industry and to retain that competitive advantage. I get asked a lot about what everyone else is doing. It’s a short-sighted question because I can’t help you if you want to be just like everyone else. My goal is to make you BETTER than everyone else. If you are aspiring to be the corporate equivalent of a C minus student you don’t need a thought leader, but if you are aspiring to be the absolute best you need me.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

  1. Read. Sounds simple but I am always on the lookout for good books particularly on how people think and make decisions. I am also fascinated about why people make mistakes. But if you are going to be a thought leader you have to read as much history as you do the latest and greatest theory.
  2. Analyze. Don’t just accept what people say because it’s new and different. When you encounter a new idea, ask yourself if you agree or disagree with the hypothesis. Write down what you elements you agree with and which ones you don’t. Seek out opinions that support the things you oppose or vice versa and consider these points with an open mind. Keep doing this until you are convinced that you understand not just the issues but so that you can defend your position as well.
  3. Argue. Some of the greatest learning I have done was in discussion threads and live discussions with people who disagree with me. I welcome it. Arguments need not be dysfunctional, in fact they shouldn’t be. There should be another name for the hysterical rantings that people call arguments. Thought leaders have intelligent discourses with other thought leaders. The argument should focus on a person’s assertions of fact (you can never argue with opinions) not on personal attacks.
  4. Write. Submitting articles for publication are a great way to establish yourself as a thought leader. When starting out, aim low and stick with what you know. I get at least one person a week asking me how they can get published in Entrepreneur magazine. Typically these are people who have no track record. I tell them that I had about 250 published works eligible for citation in six different magazines before I approached Entrepreneur with an idea. One of my publishers once told me that because I had an established niche (worker safety) and a diverse background in business, I had a big head start on writing. Build a portfolio of published work on a subject that you know well and then build from there.
  5. Speak. I have lost track of how many speeches I have made from speaking on mining safety at an international conference in Peru to “why my customers won’t call me back” in Ireland. I started with small venues until I ultimately grew in name recognition and reputation. Pretty soon people started coming to me. And people started writing articles ABOUT my speeches and interviewing me for books and articles. It was THEY not me, who first described me as a thought leader.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

Oprah Winfrey. Oprah’s style is indirect, instead preaching to you, she can have guests on her show who can express points of view and explore them. By doing so she is able to help people to analyze ideas by asking her guests probing questions. While certainly she is a thought leader by the nature of the guests she choses and those she chooses not to have on her show, she can introduce new ideas to millions of people, but what’s more, she can help them process those ideas as well. She also became a thought leader through sheer perseverance and hard work and overcame many obstacles that I didn’t have to face. The lessons we can learn from her approach are that allowing other people to state your opinions can lower the defenses of the people listening and they are more likely to be open and less likely to be fearful and defensive.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

Calling yourself a thought leader is like calling yourself People magazine’s sexiest man alive. Most if not all will find that this is a dubious claim. I know a man who has his title as “the foremost expert on…in the world.” Maybe he is, but by publicly proclaiming himself as such he comes off as a pompous ass. Is the term trite? I think to some extent “trite” is in the eye of the beholder, is it overused? I think a lot of people who are out there claiming to be thought leaders are painting targets on their backs, but if I were to describe someone else as a thought leader that is, in my opinion, under used.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Remember that you are not your job, but also, I have done a lot of research and writing about building resilience — which is your body and mind’s ability to bounce back from trauma — and it’s important to build resilience BEFORE you start to feel yourself unravelling. Get plenty of exercise, eat nutritious meals regularly, and maintain a positive, optimistic view of the world. People tend to downplay how much control they have over their mood.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I like to see people be more empathetic and forgiving. Years ago I was a miserable jerk. I was travelling heavily and finding fault continually. It felt like all I did was complain. One day I just got sick and tired of being that way and, without any idea as to whether it would work, I decided to compliment three times more frequently than I complained and to do so with equal vehemence. It was tough at first, one can’t just wake up one day and see the world through a different lens (and you can’t give false praise), but with some effort I was able to see the good in situations that previously would have set me off. It was truly transformative. Hotel clerks gave me free upgrades “for being so patient and so nice”, everywhere I went it seemed like people were nicer to me and I became a happier person. Now, even if something is annoying me I think twice about complaining because I don’t want to have compliment three times.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Make the day. Don’t let the day make you.” We don’t always control what happens in our lives but we can ALWAYS control how we react to it. We can’t let our emotions dictate how we are going to live our lives. If someone cuts you off in traffic, instead of blowing up and engaging in road rage, ask yourself what that person might be going through that would make them act in such a way. Why let a dysfunctional jerk dictate how the rest of your day is going to go?

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Barack Obama. We share the same birthday so at least we would have something to talk about. Also, I have been fascinated with his career.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter @Philladuke

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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