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5 Things You Should Do to Become a Thought Leader in Your Industry, With Nita Sweeney

If a person is lucky enough (through hard work, opportunity, and clear thinking) to be coined a thought leader, she can open doors by sharing what she knows. Speaking opportunities, book deals, podcast interviews, “featured in” articles, and guest blogging immediately come to mind. If someone is fortunate enough (skilled enough, generous enough) to have […]

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If a person is lucky enough (through hard work, opportunity, and clear thinking) to be coined a thought leader, she can open doors by sharing what she knows. Speaking opportunities, book deals, podcast interviews, “featured in” articles, and guest blogging immediately come to mind. If someone is fortunate enough (skilled enough, generous enough) to have others call her a thought leader, the benefits are limitless. Goodwill travels and authenticity knows no bounds.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nita Sweeney. Nita Sweeney is the author of the running and mental health memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink. She runs marathons, coaches writers, teaches writing and meditation, and publishes Bum Glue blog and Write Now Columbus newsletter. Nita lives in central Ohio with her husband, Ed, and their yellow Labrador, Scarlet.


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

As it turns out, cantering around the front yard of the family farm pretending you’re a horse isn’t a skill listed on many job descriptions, so I went to journalism school and law school instead. I practiced law for ten years before mental health issues forced me to make a different choice. Now, I write, coach writers, and teach classes. Thanks to my husband, I also discovered meditation which helps ground me in everything I do. More recently, I took up running which, come to think of it, is a bit like pretending you’re a horse!

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

My Dad used to say “Don’t get too big for your britches” so this question makes me uncomfortable. I don’t think of myself as an authority. I prefer be seen as someone who has learned from my life experiences and, as a result, has information to share.

When I was a partner in a small law firm, clients, staff members, and other lawyers relied on me. Often their questions related more to decision-making than the law. The same has been true with the writers I coach and teach. While craft is important, more often people come to me for encouragement and to find a different way to think about writing. They’re stuck and need help getting out of the bog.

With the publication of my first book, a memoir about how running helps me manage my depression, anxiety, and mania, readers began to see me as a “mental health advocate.” Social media followers turn to me for advice on everything from how to take up running to how to survive a serious depressive episode. I love sharing the tools I’ve learned.

But I’ve always been that person other people stop in airports to ask for directions. Just a few days ago, at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, the person sitting next to me asked me to help her understand her paperwork. I’m asked for advice so often that I decided to relax into the role!

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

Now that I’ve shared my own mental health journey, it’s surprising how many people willingly share theirs. After a book signing, a businessman I greatly admire confided his own challenges. Another man, an expert in his field, shared the struggle he’s having with a family member. People I’ve placed on pedestals tell me their stories and ask for help. I’m thrilled my honesty makes it safe for them to do so.

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?

I’m hypersensitive so my mistakes only seem funny in hindsight. Still, the one I often remember is an example of how I learned to graciously accept compliments.

When I worked for a consulting firm, one of my colleagues said he liked my dress. I had worn something more colorful and free-flowing than my usual dark, straight-skirted suit. I stammered and stuttered about the dress being a bargain and said I wasn’t sure it flattered me. He replied, “So, you think I have poor judgment?” He and I were close enough that his comment didn’t come off the way it might have from a stranger. I paused, then said “No. Let me try again. ‘Thank you.’” We laughed, but I didn’t forget it.

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 person must earn the title “Thought Leader.” I’m skeptical of people who hang out a shingle bearing that moniker. But if I repeatedly go to someone for advice on how to approach a challenge, and that person’s guidance reliably proves useful, especially the way they view the problem, I might give them that name.

“Influencer” has gotten a negative connotation. Regardless of what a person claims to be, I look for the motive. Is the person simply trying to sell something or are they committed to a product or an idea based on their lived experience? Are they trying to help others?

There’s potential overlap, of course, but I pay more attention to what people do and how they make me feel rather than what they say.

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?

If someone is fortunate enough (skilled enough, generous enough) to have others call her a thought leader, the benefits are limitless. Good will travels and authenticity knows no bounds.

As for investing resources into becoming a thought leader, I’ll go back to what I said above. I’m wary of anyone who sets out to become a thought leader in the way one might go to school to become a wetlands specialist or an accountant. But those same people, through innovative thinking, generosity, and sharing their experience, might be called thought leaders by their peers and colleagues.

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?

If a person is lucky enough (through hard work, opportunity, and clear thinking) to be coined a thought leader, she can open doors by sharing what she knows. Speaking opportunities, book deals, podcast interviews, “featured in” articles, and guest blogging immediately come to mind.

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) Walk through every open door. I have been invited to more than one event I didn’t think would be a good fit only to arrive and connect. Who knew that residents of a retirement community, many in their eighties, would be interested in the story of a mentally ill woman who runs with her dog?

2) Authenticity is contagious. The best way to be heard above the din of screaming voices is to be yourself — your best self. We are each unique and playing to that distinguishes a leader from the rest of crowd.

3) Be generous. Sharing wisdom with open-hands and a giving heart attracts people. Of course, there will be folks who try to take advantage. But generosity builds on itself. There is more than enough to go around.

4) Mind yourself. Rest. Go for a run. Eat a vegetable. Spend time with your loved ones. If your well isn’t full, you have nothing to offer.

5) Turn fear into excitement. Most of us feel anxious before trying something new. When I am nervous before a book talk, I focus on the thoughts and body sensations that arise. They resemble the jitters I got the first time I rode a roller coaster. I remember that and I’m good.

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.

Jane Friedman, author of The Business of Being a Writer impresses the heck out of me. Jane’s blog, newsletter, books, and conference appearances help countless writers navigate the changing landscape of publishing. She is generous, smart, and honest, all the things a leader should be.

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

As I said above, if someone else calls a person a “thought leader,” that’s fabulous. But I am cautious around people who claim to be thought leaders. I wouldn’t use that term about myself. It does get thrown around.

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

Self-care gets a bad rap. I find it essential and respect leaders who practice good boundaries and honor family relations and friendships. A hard worker who finds time for friends and loved ones earns my respect.

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. 🙂

Two things come to mind:

First, inertia is not your friend. As I explain in my memoir, movement has been key to my development and survival. At my desk my motto is, “Just open the file.” On the trails it’s, “Run the first mile.” With book promotion it’s, “Show up and trust.”

Second, never underestimate the importance of miniscule progress. Most questions I am asked can be answered by saying, “Chunk it down.” I recommend making goals so tiny they are nearly impossible not to meet. You don’t run a marathon all at once. Left foot. Right foot. Repeat. It’s true of everything.

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

My all-time favorite quote comes from meditation teacher Shinzen Young.

“Suffering = Pain x Resistance.”

Let’s say my pain at mile twenty-two of a marathon is a level “6.” I have a choice. I can resist, tense up, grit my teeth. Let’s say I resist at a level 5. Now, instead of level 6 pain, I have level 30 suffering! When I remember this, I acknowledge the pain, relax, and thank Shinzen for his wisdom. Resistance doesn’t just add to the pain, it multiplies it.

Shinzen’s formula works with writing and everything else.

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. 🙂

Just one? Sorry. I don’t follow directions well.

Here are my current top three: Oprah. Professor Brene Brown. Meditation teacher Tara Brach.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: https://twitter.com/nitasweeney/

Facebook: https://facebook.com/nitasweeneyauthor/

LinkedIn: https://linkedin.com/in/nitasweeney/

Pinterest: https://pinterest.com/nitasweeney/

Instagram: https://instagram.com/nitasweeney/

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

Thank you for the opportunity! You ask great questions.

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