Be followable. — Leaders want followers, but we all have to ask the question, are we followable? If someone is following you, where are you taking them? We often want respect without being respectable.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Leak.
Ryan Leak is a speaker, author, executive coach, and podcaster from Dallas, TX. He’s known as the ultimate risk taker from two documentaries, one being The Surprise Wedding where he proposed to his wife and married her on the same day after he planned the wedding for two years. The second documentary he’s known for is called Chasing Failure that shows Ryan’s journey of trying out for the Phoenix Suns and learning from failure. Ryan speaks to over 50,000 people a month and trains upwards of 12,000 leaders a year from C-Suite Executives to professional athletes.
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?
I had the privilege of growing up in church where my father was a pastor. What was really cool about that is I had an opportunity from a young age to be in front of all kinds of interesting people. If you think about a guy like Tiger Woods who picked up a golf club before the age of 5, he reached his 10,000 hours with his craft before others could. For me, it was the same thing with a microphone growing up in the church. When I was applying to colleges, I realized there were people who’d probably never go to church that still needed to be encouraged wherever they were. So I went to school for business and now I get an opportunity to speak in corporations and churches all over the country.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
The reason I would be considered an authority on this topic of thought leadership is because I get to do over 100 events a year all across America which means I get to spend time with thousands of people each year that all have different skin tones, political persuasions, and values. Most people find themselves gravitating towards one circle of people, but I’ve been privileged to be able to float in and out of many circles while adding value to each of them.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
This one is hard because I’d say something interesting happens to me almost every week, but if I had to pick the one that would be the most interesting it’d be when I first spoke at a Fortune 500 company and was introduced as the guy who’s story that was featured on Oprah. It was actually the Queen Latifah Show. Standing before a company of their caliber and being introduced with Oprah expectations was comical to say the least.
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?
Are you sure you only want one? I’ve got a book full of them, but I’ll give you one that still keeps me up at night. My last name is Leak, and as a kid, my brother and I were given nicknames: Drip and Lildrip. I ended up getting the email: [email protected] And I actually thought it was professional enough to conduct business with this email. I’ll never forget when a client in my early twenties politely recommended I step up my email game. I was offended. But I quickly learned, it’s important to listen to people who are trying to help you.
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?
I believe a typical leader in any industry is simply utilizing the resources at their disposal to the best of their abilities. They’re a person that rallies the troops to achieve mission, vision, and values of an organization. But I would say a thought leader is someone who is somewhat of an outlier. They’re a person who has their thumb on the pulse of an industry, but is simultaneously thinking about how to improve the industry in the future. They’re a person that’s not afraid to question the status quo. They’re a person that’s taking risk in the industry before it’s every trendy. I think it’s certainly possible to be an influencer and a thought leader at the same time. Part of the issue is when you’re a self-acclaimed leader, influencer, or thought leader. We can call ourselves whatever we want, but the proof of what we are is in what we’ve produced in others. The question I would be asking all leaders and influencers is: Who’s behind you trying to mimic what you do?
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?
The people who are compensated the most in the world we live in are the ones who solve the biggest problems. When I show up to any meeting for my team or someone else’s, I try to be the most prepared person in the room and add the most value. I’ve found that when you’re consistently adding value to the rooms you’re walking into, you’ll also be consistently invited back to those rooms.
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?
I was sitting with a client once and let them know this statistic: Only 50% of the U.S. population under the age of 18 is caucasian. The data tells us by 2045, that will be the case for all ages.
So what thought did I lead them in? Well the future of their organization is going to be a lot more diverse whether they prefer it that way or not. And in light of their future customer base and their human resources, diversity, equity, and inclusion are conversations they desperately need have a great understanding of.
I didn’t tell them they have a problem or that they were the problem. I simply shared a future challenge that was coming their way that I could help them with.
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.
- Get good at what you do.
Whenever we experience phenomenal customer service from anywhere, what do we do? We tell our friends about it and sometimes even post about it. The best marketing plan anyone can have is doing a really great job with every opportunity they have. If you’re really good at what you do, the people who experience that will talk. Your mindset with your product or your service should be one that aims to gives your customers a reason to talk about you.
I remember speaking at a conference with 10,000 leaders and I was given 7 minutes to speak while other speakers were given 20–30 minutes. But my mentality was to just crush it with the 7 minutes I was given. That 7 minute opportunity with 10,000 leaders turned into a 45 minute opportunity with 45,000 people a year later. You never know who’s listening or watching. I’ve been asked before, “When did you know you were good at what you do?” My response is typically, “I don’t know that I’ve ever thought I was good at what I do as much as I’m constantly trying to get better. The only hint I got that I was good was that I keep getting invited to do it more and more.” If you’re good, and stay good, I believe there will always be a demand for what you do.
2. Be followable.
Leaders want followers, but we all have to ask the question, are we followable? If someone is following you, where are you taking them? We often want respect without being respectable. If you want respect, earn it. If you want to be followed, give people a reason to go on the journey with you. Sometimes a leader wants a title without having to make an impact. Sometimes a leader wants to be in charge but doesn’t want to make a difference. I think every leader has to look inward and think about what leading others will do more for their followers than it will for their brand or their leadership. If I’m leading you, my leadership needs to be about you.
3. Add value to your followers.
If you’re going to be a thought leader, you have to be a person that solves a problem. You have to be a person that adds value to someone else’s life. What problems, challenges, and obstacles do your followers have the most? You want to think of ways you can help them overcome those.
One of the biggest challenges my followers have is procrastination. I literally dedicated a whole chapter to it in my book and consistently look for other various ways to produce content that helps people take one more step towards the life they dream of having. I found that my followers often wait to finish a whole project before they feel like their winning, but I outline in my book how daily wins is something they can celebrate to create momentum towards achieving their overall goal. Sometimes people are throwing hail mary’s hoping to score a touch down when they can run 4 small plays to get a first down. This helped a lot of my readers because they’d beat themselves up for throwing a hail mary that nobody caught.
You never want to find yourself as leader answering questions nobody is asking.
4. Study your industry.
If you want to be known a thought leader, I believe you have to be trustworthy. People have to trust your intellect and that you know your stuff. You can’t truly lead anyone without gaining their respect. One way to earn respect is by being well-studied. How well do you know your industry? I know people who went to school for Marketing in the early 2000s and they used to be considered a genius a decade ago. Now they’re considered a relic because marketing has changed a lot and they refused to do the same. I think we all have to remain students of our own industry if you don’t want to risk irrelevancy.
In my content world, we’re constantly navigating social media. Social media changes every week. Algorithms for each platform are consistently being tweaked. No matter how many views, likes, shares, or comments we get, my team knows that we can’t ever get so comfortable that we stop learning and growing.
5. Take risks.
Knowledge of your industry will help you earn respect. But I believe the second thing that will make people want to consider you a thought leader is your experience. It’s not just because of what you know, but they’re also following you because of what you’ve done, or at least tried.
My team and I are always trying new things. It’s how we figure out what works and what doesn’t faster than others. And because we take risks often, we have lessons to share with others often. A lot of people are afraid to take risks, but it’s one of the few ways you can get an experience worth learning from. A thought leader introduces new ideas, but it’s going to be hard to do that if you never try new ideas.
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.
I know he’s the most popular author in the world right now, but James Clear is pretty brilliant. He writes emails people actually want to read which is very hard to do in a world bombarded with messages all day. His content is fresh, helpful, and simple. I think we all should be taking notes on what he is doing.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I believe we should do our best to not to give ourselves self-acclaimed titles. It probably gets a negative connotation at times because we’ve heard people refer to themselves as a thought leader. People have called me a thought leader several times and I’ve looked back at them and said, “When did I become that?” I don’t wake up thinking… “I’m a thought a leader.” I wake up and simply try to add value to the lives of the people I encounter. I don’t think the term is trite, overused, or should be avoided, but I think we should be slow to use it for ourselves.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Take at least one day off a week. A leader needs a place to be off. Constant on-ness isn’t good for us. I think there was this movement over the past couple of decades celebrating people that operate on 4 hours of sleep and never take a day off. I respect it, but I’m not envious of the grind at all. I try to get at least 8 hours of sleep a night. I run my schedule. My schedule doesn’t run me. We think that if we take a break, we’ll get behind. But you’re not as good leading on empty. My wife and I are professional staycationers. We love unplugging for a couple of days in town just to recharge and I believe that’s crucial for not burning out.
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 think we could change the world if we decided to encourage at least one person every single day. People are often getting off and on the struggle bus. I wake up sometimes with the assumption that somebody in my world is hurting and I can do something about it. I can only imagine what our world would look like if we woke up intentionally looking for ways to be kind to and encourage other people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s better to give than receive. — Jesus Christ.
I’ve found that generosity is the most practical way to make a difference in the world. Some people might think it’d be a really good feeling to get a million dollars. But do you know what kind of person you would have to be to give away a million dollars? It’s a more impactful goal in my opinion. In my home, we’re not marked by how much we make, but by how much we give.
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. 🙂
How can our readers follow you online?
Instagram: @Ryanleak. Linkedin: @ryanleak. Twitter: @ryanleak. And you can get weekly motivating text straight from my phone to yours by texting 469–809–1201.
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.