In recent years, more and more speaking, consulting, and coaching businesses have shifted to fall under a bigger umbrella, that of “thought leadership.”
With this shift – and as aspiring thought leaders seek to enter the space – many have also been left asking, “What exactly is a thought leader,” “What is thought leadership,” and “How do I become a true thought leader?”
To answer this, we’re joined for a second time by differentiation expert Mark Levy.
As a speaker, consultant, and author, Mark has helped countless organizations define their “Big Sexy Idea™” or “the idea they’re going to be known for throughout the world.”
This includes brands as big as that of Simon Sinek, but it can also include you, provided you master true thought leadership and define your own Big Sexy Idea™.
Here, in his signature, captivating style, Mark breaks down how you can accomplish this, whether you’re adapting an existing thought leadership business or starting one from scratch.
As always with Mark, we learned a LOT from this episode – Hope you do, too!
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Intro: You know those moments when you’re doing what you love in your business, maybe it’s standing onstage or creating content, whatever it is, you’re totally immersed, and time just seems to slip by? This is called the flow state. At Speaker Flow, we’re obsessed with how to get you there more often. Each week we’re joined by a new expert where we share stories, strategies, and systems to help craft a business you love. Welcome to Technically Speaking.
Austin: Alright, boom. We’re live. Mark Levy. Holy crap. I cannot believe that we got you back on the show for a second round. We are so lucky. Thank you so much for being here.
Mark: I didn’t want to come back on, but I suspected you guys are technophiles, that I thought you might do something to my system or whatnot.
Austin: You mooned me, Mark.
Taylorr: I can barely edit a CRM, let alone hack someone’s system. Yeah. It’s all perception.
Austin: Yeah. It is really easy to give us more credit than we deserve in this category. Look, part of this, you’re a busy guy. You’re the co-chair or something for the upcoming NSA event, right? Thrive.
Mark: I’m chair for the 2023 Thrive. Yeah.
Austin: Chair. Got it.
Mark: Yeah, yeah.
Austin: What’s that been like? Are you feeling ready for it? Is it going to be an awesome event?
Mark: Yeah, it’s been fantastic in the fact of all I really did, like here was the vision that I had. This, I think you guys will find interesting. I come from a background, as you know; I have a background in magic. I create magic tricks and shows and things like that, that are off Broadway and Vegas and so forth. And magic years ago, in the fifties and sixties, it was somewhat dying. And that’s because it was often looked upon as kind of hokey, not all magicians, but just some magicians. And it was the fact that it seemed separate from who human beings really were. It was guys in tuxedos with cummerbunds onstage; pushing around boxes that no one ever knew existed in real life.
And those boxes would do amazing things, but it was a prop that no one knew what it really could do, so people in the audience would say, well, I guess if I had that box and that cummerbund, I could do this too. And then starting in the 1970s, largely; there were people who the public doesn’t necessarily know that well, but people like Paul Harris and people like that. And they started, Doug Henning was a hippie and he performed as if he was hippie, he kind of dressed that way. And so, it was that honesty, and it was bringing that to the performance that actually brought magic back so that it’s super cool with street magicians walking up to you and they have a sleeve of tattoos and they’re interrupting your space and they’re doing some miraculous things.
So, the reason why I’m talking about this, the thing that brought magic back was this honesty and this rawness and this going into daily life, as opposed to forcing you to come to this artificial environment with artificial props. So, I said in finding speakers for the 2023 Thrive, there are a lot of great speakers out there, but I don’t really care whether you are the top speaker or not. If you have something to tell us about how to make our businesses better, that people commonly don’t know, we want to hear it. So, right? And I don’t know if that sounds radical or not, but for a group of speakers it is. It’s this idea of like, am I trying to find the best speakers? Not necessarily. I’m trying to find the people to help us have the best businesses.
Another analogy is, I wanted us to go punk rock, I was used to in the seventies, these groups that would play these big stadium shows with these giant speakers and laser light shows or whatnot. And then you started to have the Sex Pistols and The Clash, you know what I mean? And The Specials and people like that come on the scene. And so, I said, I want us to be street magic. I want us to be punk rock. I want us to go right up into people’s faces and tell them, here’s what you need to know. Does that make sense? Forgive me for blabbering, but that was the vision that guided the entire.
Taylorr: Well, I love to hear.
Mark: The entire thing. By the way, we were talking before we started recording, you were talking about the report that you do and what is it, Taylorr, you had said it’s what associations?
Taylorr: It’s the questions that associations can’t ask. Yeah, yeah. The money conversation and how business gets generated and we actually surveyed 115 million of revenue in 2022 and 7,000 collective years of the industry from one year.
Mark: Oh my God.
Taylorr: It’s crazy. Yeah. It’s coming out very soon.
Mark: That’s awesome. So, that instantly, it’s always about, when I sit down to create something or if I’m creating something with someone else, a key question. And often the first or second question I ask, or I think about is, what do I know that they don’t know? I don’t mean the person I’m creating with, I’m saying the market. Because if you only tell people what it is they already know, they have no reason to listen to you and they won’t listen to you. So, I instantly say, okay, here’s who I’m going to be speaking to, or what do I know about this topic that they don’t know? What ideas, what insights, what stories, what exercises, what do I know that 80% of the marketplace doesn’t know? Or what do I know that they may know, but they haven’t thought to say? What do I know that they need to know, but they don’t know, right?
Because then they have to listen to me. I sometimes call those things jolts. I say when you’re speaking, it is essential that you seed your conversation or you seed your book or whatever it is you’re writing, that you seed it with jolts. And jolts are things that keep people awake. By the way, I’m not the first person to use this word in this context. A science fiction writer from the eighties did, and I cannot remember his name right now, a Canadian science fiction writer, but I apologize. This concept of jolts is, right? Think about what a jolt is. So, if you’re not jolting people regularly, they’re going to look away. And the idea of jolts has only increased now because of technology, due in part to the work you do and the erosion of society based on the work you’ve done.
Taylorr: Just throwing hands. If you were in person, Mark, you better.
Austin: I’m impressed, actually.
Taylorr: That was a good through line.
Mark: I love you guys, so I’m joking. So, you’re very sophisticated thinkers who can talk at length about an idea, I’ve heard you do it, so I applaud that. But the idea of seeding things with stuff that wakes them up, where they go, wtf, that’s what it is. That’s what it is that you’re look, can I keep talking or should I stop?
Austin: Please, you’re doing great. I would love to say nothing else during this episode.
Mark: So, it reminds me, I was just talking to a prospect today and I forget the question he asked me and I said, look, I have a background as a magician, I create magic tricks and shows and illusions and things of that nature. And I said, magicians know that subtlety doesn’t work. That if you’re too subtle about something, it won’t make a dent in people’s consciousness and they’ll turn away. And so, for a magic trick to really work, you really have to go for a freak-out. It has to be, you can’t just change the date on a coin that’s too small, you have to change the coin into a live box turtle. Or you have to, you know what I mean?
Magicians know that the beginning and ending states that the contrast needs to be great, and that freaks people out where they can’t help but talk about something. So, whatever it is I do, when I’m differentiating a business or a book, I’m always looking for what is it that the audience is going to walk away with where they will not be able to stop talking about it. Where like, you, in essence, by delivering that idea, you’ve created a new conversation out in the world. And I don’t mean that in a subtle way, I don’t mean one person talking about something new. I mean where the market is talking about something new based on something you said. I’ll shut up now.
Austin: Damn. Holy crap. Well, look, actually that was so much good information and that perfectly connects to what we want to talk with you about today, this was a great foundation to build off of. I think that people in this space to some degree need to create what you just described there. Create the jolt, create that sense of contrast between the starting and ending position of the person experiencing the speaker, the coach, the consultant, the author, the podcast, the train, whatever it is that the people listening to the show are doing out there. To kind of bring it back to the center theme that we wanted to discuss with you today are, in fact, the title or the theme that we came up with is WTF is Thought Leadership. And you just mentioned WTF in something else, so that was funny.
Mark: I love it.
Austin: The term thought leader is really all about perception. And I think, to some degree, you deal in perception, it’s all about what people think of and about you when you’re pitching, when you’re promoting, when you’re executing the thing that you do, and steer me from the rocks if that’s the case. But it seems to me that a thought leader is, sort of, in that category. And the term I think has also been cheapened a little bit with time, because it gets thrown around a lot, right? Anybody can be a thought leader when you can put up a post on LinkedIn regardless of whether it’s actually valuable or not. So, with all of that being said, I’d love to hear your thoughts about any of that, but I’d also love for you to define what the hell thought leadership actually even means in 2023, from someone who specializes in making thought leaders thought leaders. Wow.
Mark: I love that. Thank you. I’m never asked that question, so thank you.
Mark: No. No one ever asked that.
Mark: Yeah. Yeah.
Austin: Wow. Interesting.
Mark: So, I haven’t thought about this for years, but I once researched it because whenever I’m working on an idea a hundred percent of the time I go back to its foundations. I want to know, literally, what the etymology of a word is and what the term is, like how did it begin? How did it evolve? Because I find looking at what something is about, so that’s why with businesses, I always want to know from the founder, why did you start this business? What was happening in your life? What had happened in your life that made this important to, I just find it very important to understand the foundation and the evolution of things.
I think it’s because, I could be mistaken about this, but when I was a kid, 6, 7, 8, 9 years old, I used to be absent from school a lot. I used to skip school a lot. And so, when I’d come back to school, I didn’t have the clarity of what I was doing to myself that I’m going to tell you about now. I realized this 20 years ago, not when I was a kid.
Mark: Yeah. When I’d come back to school, there were certain subjects that I could not do well in no matter what, like math and science. And it’s because I had missed foundational knowledge, that there was no such thing as catch up, if you miss certain concepts, now you just could never deal with any other concepts that went past it. And that’s why I kind of excelled at literature and history and social studies and sociology or whatnot because you could be dropped in, maybe you missed Animal Farm, but now War of the Worlds was the new book and it was self-contained, so you could jump in and excel at that. So, I think that’s why I became a storyteller and a writer or whatnot, because I screwed myself out of the foundational knowledge I needed for other subjects. So, it’s always very.
Mark: Important for me. Yeah. Yeah. For me, anyone who works with me knows this, that I always go back, oh, how did this idea start? And now let’s see how it progressed. So, thought leadership, there are a few different stories about it, and I haven’t thought about this in a few years, but there was a consultant, and I believe his name was Joel, or is Joel Kurtzman, forgive me if I got that wrong, but with a K. And Kurtzman led some, and again, forgive if some of these ideas are off, he led some internal report or publishing arm or something from one of the major consulting firms, I don’t remember who, BC or McKinsey or one of these places.
And they would print up a magazine and they would send it out to all of the consultants all around the world, and they kind of realized that no one was reading it, no one was reading it. Because they’d call and they talk to people and they wouldn’t be able to talk about an article that was the headline article of things. So, this Joel Kurtzman guy said, you know what? I’m going to take boxes of this magazine and I’m going to go out to our different outposts all around America or all around the world and I’m going to get all our consultants together and I’m going to give them all the magazine and then I’m going to talk to them about what’s in that issue. I’m going to get them excited about the issue, so they have these new ideas that they can use to talk to their clients about.
And Kurtzman was the first guy, from what it is I discovered at least, that he called it. He said, I guess what it is I’m doing is called thought leadership. I’m a thought leader. And so that was the idea. And I loved hearing that story because thought leadership can seem very daunting and it can seem very difficult and all kinds of things, but in its truest sense, it was just getting teaching people and getting people excited about ideas that they didn’t know about. You know what I mean? And that’s.
Mark: Just think of it, walking around with these magazines and saying, here, let me tell you about them so you can use them as part of your work. And that’s what thought leadership is. So, I think thought leadership also, I think I had once described it as people are working at their desks with their heads down, doing their work with tunnel vision and a thought leader is kind of like a flare gun that you shoot up a flare up into the sky and it’s super bright and sparkly and the people working with their heads down, hear the noise and kind of see some light above them. And they may look up momentarily and some people will look up for a while and some people just look up and go right back to their work.
So, the thought leader is that person and that explosion is kind of like the idea that you want them to look at it. And, again, some people will devote their lives to that thing that you shot up in the air, but most people just look up briefly and get back to what they were doing. That’s okay. The flare is not meant to stay in the sky sparkling for eternity. That’s not what its job is. It’s just to say, Hey, if you’re interested, this is interesting up here. Right? Does that make sense?
Taylorr: Love that.
Mark: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. So, with thought leadership, Austin, ask me your question again and I’ll speak directly to it.
Austin: My question was just.
Taylorr: You answered it. How do you define it? And you did that.
Austin: How do you define it? Yeah, exactly. You nailed it.
Taylorr: Yeah, you nailed it.
Austin: In fact, I never even would’ve thought that way. I love this show because it makes me question my assumptions about things.
Taylorr: Makes me think differently.
Austin: Yeah, exactly.
Taylorr: For sure. It’s the beautiful thing about this.
Mark: So, to get to thought leadership then, to continue on, I always begin with understanding the foundational ideas. And I think that stems from me playing hooky from school so much when I was a kid. Very seriously. So, my hooky helps people who I’ve helped because.
Taylorr: You hear that kids? Skip school.
Mark: So, I remember I was working with the CEO who turned around Popeyes, who made it the industry darling after it was not doing well. And I was coaching her on writing a book. And the very first question I asked her is, you’re writing a book on leadership, right? And she said, yeah. Remember she had hired me. And I said, what is leadership? And because I said to her, I have two cats and a dog. You have thousands of employees and stockholders. I have a feeling that your view of leadership is a little different than my view of leadership. You know what I mean? So, I credit myself on something like that because I don’t think a lot of people, I’ve been told this, would have the guts to make themselves appear that stupid. It’s like, what is leadership? It’s like, oh my God, I hired you. What do you.
Taylorr: Yeah. It makes you think about it, though, if you have to put a definition to that idea. And I’m sure it was a journey that she went on addressing that question.
Mark: Right. So, it’s always, always, always like, what is your business about? What would you say is the centerpiece of your business?
Taylorr: Is that a question for us?
Taylorr: Are you holding the script right now. Great. Oh, cool. Yeah. The whole centerpiece is that in order to stay in your zone of genius, be in flow, you need to be organized, you still need to run a business and handle the administration, but there are better ways to do that, rather than the piecemeal way of going about it. So, if you want to create the most impact while still running a business, you have to be as efficient and organized as possible to make that happen. And that’s a difficult task for many people in that lane.
Mark: Super. Your stuff’s invaluable, so I imagine that. So, there are two ideas there. The idea or the phrase zone of genius, which I forget it comes from a specific book. I forget the name of the book, from 15 years ago, but I’d be interested in the idea of where genius comes from, but also the idea of organization. If I was working with you, let’s say you were going to give a speech, I would really try to understand the concept of preparation and organization and what did that look like in the Stone Age? Or what does it look like in the animal world? Or what is that? And I’m not even trying to be funny. I know it sounds funny, but it’s like, oh, what does an organization in preparation really allow you to do?
When were those concepts actually solidified? Because I promise you in human history, the idea of organization has not always been around. I’m going to guess that that’s a concept that’s from the industrial age or something like that. I don’t think people in the renaissance were talking about being organized or being like, what made people, you know what I mean? And how has the concept evolved or so. I don’t know, I don’t have answers to that, but it’s super interesting to me.
Taylorr: Yeah, it really is. It’s a simple way to truly understand the thing you’re going after too, there’s no magic sauce, you’re just starting from ground zero and truly understanding where everything came from and from there, I’m sure all of the ideas to Austin’s hand movements over there, layer past that point. Actually, this whole conversation, this has kind of brought me down a train of thought around thought leadership. And I think, I don’t know who this phrase comes from, I don’t even know if it’s entirely accurate or not. But the idea is most ideas have been shared to some degree or another, there’s some belief out there, right?
That a lot of what we’re doing as, let’s say thought leaders, is in essence regurgitating information thrown in with our own perspective. And as you’ve been talking earlier, especially the flair analogy or the original root definition of thought leadership, where you’re just sharing new ideas to get people to think differently and talk differently. Does thought leadership need to be new?
Mark: Forgive me for interrupting you, but when you repeated it there, I remember a phrase when I first thought about it is what thought leadership was when Kurtzman did it was show and tell.
Taylorr: Right. Right.
Mark: Going back to foundations, it was first grade, it was, oh, here’s this article I brought in, here’s what it’s about. Okay, thank you. Next. Here’s this article. It’s show and tell. That’s what thought leadership is. Go ahead and I apologize, go back to your point.
Taylorr: So, that means truly then you don’t necessarily, it sounds like, I’m making some assumptions here, but you don’t necessarily need to have the newest and greatest ideas, something that hasn’t ever been fostered or thought of before, but it can be about sharing existing ideas, but adding in a way that gets people to think differently. Am I on track about that? Or do you believe thought leadership needs to be inherently new things that are being brought to the world?
Mark: Great question. I would argue, I’ve been doing this since 2001, this differentiation work that I do, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a new idea in the work I’ve done. And that’s not me being critical of people, or so. I once read a quote or an essay by a political speech writer that he used to write speeches for one of the presidents back in the sixties or the seventies, I can’t remember who it was. And he said something like, the only place you can have original ideas is if they’re drawn from nature or the world of science. Human beings cannot have original ideas. He said, if you look to nature and science for original ideas, because those things are created outside of our minds.
They’re created in another realm so they can be original to us because they don’t need our hand to drive them, so they can be created on their own and then to us they’re original. It’s like, oh my God, where’d that come from? But human beings, we’re always standing on the shoulders of giants, to quote Isaac Newton. Right? It’s always, always, always predicated on something that came before you. So, it’s always you putting together two ideas that hadn’t been put together before to create a hybrid, so that can create a newness or giving something a new context. In other words, here’s something that worked in the world of science and now I’m going to use it in the world of sales. Or here’s something that worked in this civilization, now I’m going to use it in that. So, that’s changing context, that creates originality.
But, in general, if you came up with a genuinely new idea and who said this? I used to teach research writing at Rutgers, so that’s why I always try to think back, but you’re asking me about things that no one ever asked me about, so I don’t have my.
Taylorr: That’s good.
Mark: Now, where I got these things from. But as sci-fi.
Austin: We’re asking you dig deep, Mark.
Mark: Right. The sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling from Austin, Texas, a big cyber kind of punk kind of guy, I think it’s him who said, if you genuinely came up with a genuine new idea, no one would understand it, because you’d have to talk about it in a language that no one had really heard before. Ideas that there was no way for them to get a foothold on. So, if you actually came up with a new idea, you would be the only one who understood it. And so, if people are going to understand your quote-unquote new idea, it means it’s predicated on something that already exists that they already know.
So, that’s why I’m saying originality is your original spin on it or you talking about, I don’t know, it’s a context or whatnot, but don’t let yourself be stopped by the idea that it’s not going to be genuinely original. You just need to quote your sources; you need to credit the people from where it came from. But if you sit there waiting to have a genuinely new idea, that’s not going to happen, you’re end up going to produce nothing. Which by the way, so to continue on in this, it reminds me; years ago, I read a book by three authors and one of them was the president of Babson College in Massachusetts, which, at the time, had always been the top rated entrepreneurial school in America. I don’t know if it still is, maybe it is.
But it was always at the top of these polls for entrepreneurship. And so, these three guys, including the president of Babson, wanted to understand what separates entrepreneurs from regular people. It didn’t have to be Steve Jobs from regular people; it was Steve Jobs, but also just regular entrepreneurs. What makes them different from people who are not entrepreneurs? And they only discovered one thing that makes entrepreneurs different. And it was this. So, they said that normal people, regular people, they operate through something that they may have called or I don’t remember if they said this, they called it maybe predictive reasoning.
And so, it was the idea of normal people, if they wanted to do something new for them, they would wait for the future to line up like their past, so that they had a great deal of predictability and control over what they were about to do that was new in this future space. The problem is if you’re doing something genuinely new for yourself or for the marketplace, the future will never line up like the past. So, you’re playing a game, you could never, ever win because your future’s always going to be different than your past, right? Rather than waiting it to line up, it’s not going to happen. So, they said in the book, they said, what entrepreneurs do is very different, they don’t use predictive reasoning.
What they do is they have a vision for the future and then they take the smallest step forward that they can afford to lose on. And then they look around to see what reality has been telling them about that small bet that they had just made. And now they take a new step forward that they can afford to lose on, and then they stop and see what reality is telling them. And they keep on taking these small steps that they can afford to lose on, these iterative steps that often have failure involved in them, until they get to their vision or a new version of their vision, right?
So, normal people won’t move until they can predict everything perfectly so they don’t move. And entrepreneurs know that they’re going to fail over and over again, but they just take small steps that they can lose on. So, those were the two differences. Again, I don’t remember why I brought this up, but it had something to do.
Austin: Well, it’s a valuable point. People get totally frozen and stuck in their heads and I think to, sort of, tie this together, I think in both of these instances, the first thing that you were talking about is this sense of not even probably being able to create a new idea unless you’re cross pollinating contexts or you’re going and looking into nature to find inspiration in terms that has never been thought about before. Very rare circumstances. And there are a lot of people out there that judge themselves harshly because they feel like the ideas that they have aren’t unique.
And I think that an important thing to point out is that that’s maybe not even what is valuable to people; be the flare gun, find the idea that gets you excited, that you see creates impact, and then share that with people because they’re not paying attention to it, they’re in their own world with tunnel vision going on. And I think that’s a big deal.
Mark: That’s right. Beautifully put. It’s less about the originality and more about the usefulness of your ideas. And often, how many people, this happens to me all the time, how many times do people talk about an idea? One person will talk about an idea and it goes right past you, another person who you really like will talk about the same idea or similar idea and now it catches fire to you, right? It’s because of the context, that, to me, has to do with thought leadership. That if people know your thinking and trust your thinking; who you are, sometimes greases the skids for people in their acceptance of a new idea, right?
With someone who they don’t necessarily trust, it’s like, eh. But with someone else it’s like wow. That’s why, by the way, the idea of backstory about why you do what you do is so important, because to me that helps to create context of you’ve earned the right to speak about this idea. Whereas, if someone is just bringing up an idea and it seems to be not moored to anything, it’s kind of like I don’t know, I guess, why should I believe you? But someone who’s lived the life with that idea seminal in, like you give that idea more cred because you give them more cred.