Sandra Stewart | May 5, 2022
Thought leadership is a natural brand builder for impact-focused enterprises—by definition, they’re analyzing the present and building the future. But writing and speaking in ways that motivate key audiences to act requires tailoring your strategy to the thinkers and markets involved. And that’s easier to do when you understand your experts’ (or your own) thought leadership personality.
Knowing the types you’re working with helps you match authors and speakers to the right opportunities and bring out their strengths. In working with dozens of thought leaders across the spectrum of sustainability sectors, we’ve found most sort into three thought leadership personality types: the visionary, the thinker and the teacher. Naturally there’s some overlap—people don’t fit in boxes—but we’ve yet to encounter someone who doesn’t lean one of these three ways.
The visionary: a brand-defining anchor
Visionaries are always aspirational and sometimes inspirational. Never worried about seeming too ambitious, they’re most comfortable in the land of big ideas. A visionary thought leader can conjure beautiful yet affordable net-zero housing, sketch the architecture of an equitable economy, or map a food system that nourishes the land and every person it touches. They’ll even make skeptics believe in it (at least a little bit).
The visionary shines as the brand-defining anchor to a thought leadership program. They tend to be great keynote speakers and podcast guests, and they can deliver the kind of imaginative, provocative thinking that lands bylined articles in top-tier media. They give great interviews, too. On the other hand, details are not their strong suit: roping in a visionary to explain the nitty-gritty of putting a new idea into practice, for example, is a waste of their talents and will almost certainly bore them into uncharacteristic silence.
The analyst: seeing patterns and illuminating systems
Analysts impress with the power of their intellect than rather than the allure of their rhetoric. Like visionaries, they see the big picture, but analysts look for patterns and unturned stones, pulling together disparate threads to illuminate a system. They revel in revealing how all the pieces work—or don’t—and how everything could come together better.
An analyst may not fire up every crowd, but they can be the linchpin of a thought leadership program. They’re reliable sources for trend pieces (a media staple), and we can always find a home for thoughtful commentary that helps others see how they can drive progress. If analysts have a weakness, it’s that they are too comfortable with complexity—if you want media coverage for your solutions, you have to get comfortable with simplicity.
The teacher: snapping fuzzy concepts into focus
How-to articles are the bread and butter of a trade PR strategy—these thinkers demonstrate their company’s expertise by explaining how to get maximum benefit from a new technology, apply a new model or address business challenges. This is where the teacher thought leadership personality rules. Teachers would rather not speculate. They get their hands dirty in the field. They know where the pitfalls are. They can walk people through how things work. And they’re often the ones who snap a fuzzy concept into sharp focus.
When you need to nudge people out of the status quo and show them how practical and feasible your solution is, bring in a teacher. They’re great at introducing new concepts and understanding barriers to action. At conferences, they reign over breakout sessions. As interviewees, they are five-star preparers. Just don’t expect them to come up with expansive themes or sharp-eyed views on where your sector is heading.
A realistic assessment of the thought leadership personality types on your team is one of the keys to developing a successful strategy. With that knowledge in hand, you and your PR partner can cater to your leaders’ strengths and deliver thought leadership that builds your brand—whether it’s visionary, analytical, educational or all three.