When Brad spoke during meetings, people listened. And I mean really paid attention—the set-down-your-coffee-and-stop-checking-Facebook kind of listening that’s usually reserved for announcements by top executives. Even though Brad was a mid-level manager, he was known for making observations or recommendations that invariably helped to solve pesky problems that had the rest of the team stumped.

What was it about Brad that set him apart from his peers? His credentials and experience were about the same as others on the same rung of the corporate ladder. The difference was Brad’s ability to consume information and “connect the dots” in an interesting way. He was able to identify early signs of new market trends. He made educated guesses about competitive shifts with remarkable accuracy. He had a unique point of view that brought real clarity and value to his team. Some people described Brad as insightful; others called him a thought leader.

Thought leaders have a passion for learning about their areas of expertise, and they develop an uncanny ability to interpret and anticipate market changes. Using that insight, they can share opinions and ideas that lead to smart business decisions—from product innovations and operations improvements to imaginative strategies that give their companies a real edge.

What does an insightful leader look like?

Here are the types of behaviors and characteristics that can be found among those who exhibit thought leadership:

  • They know the background of their industry.
  • They understand how it started, the market impetus, the evolution of their customers’ needs, and the competitive landscape, as well as economic and external factors that shaped the industry.
  • They make knowledge acquisition a strategy.
  • They stay current with industry and general business publications including trade and professional journals, blogs and online resources, business magazines and books. They attend seminars, conferences and workshops to learn about new developments in their fields.
  • They study the latest market research.
  • They analyze data to help determine factors that influence customer satisfaction and preferences, giving them insight into potential trends, risks and opportunities for the future.
  • They network with people who can further broaden their thinking.
  • They participate in professional and industry organizations, and they make connections with experts who have experience recognizing key trends and market shifts.
  • They challenge themselves to apply their cumulative knowledge in innovative ways.
  • They take a step back and look at the big picture, thinking about alternatives and new solutions with positive impact beyond the immediate problem. Plus, they have the confidence to recommend bold approaches that might push some people out of their comfort zones.

How can you become an insightful leader?

While it might occasionally look like thought leaders are clairvoyant, they have actually made a conscious effort to become experts in their fields and worked very hard to achieve that positioning. That means it’s something you can do, as well.

To become more insightful, move the task of “information gathering” to the top of your to-do list. Read everything you can about your industry or niche. Study the history, and stay up-to-date on the latest news. Follow related research studies. Network with other experts in the field who can share different approaches and perspectives. Then practice applying that depth of knowledge in creative ways as you develop new strategies and work to resolve problems.

Once you begin putting the pieces in place to position yourself as a thought leader, what’s the best way to showcase your knowledge? Here are a few suggestions to help you get started.

When you find industry content that is interesting and has a new angle, forward it to your colleagues with a quick comment on how this might apply to your own company’s challenges. Be the person who connects your team members to experts outside the company who demonstrate original thinking (great blogs, upcoming presentations, TedX talks, etc.). In meetings, resist the urge to assume the role of reporter, note-taker or action-item updater. Find ways to pepper in your own original thinking on discussion items (without belaboring any points). Focus on drawing conclusions and pointing out implications based on articles you’ve read, speeches you’ve heard, or research you’ve analyzed. Volunteer to share new industry studies that haven’t been considered by your team, and “connect the dots” to potential impact for your current projects.

Establishing yourself as a thought leader won’t happen overnight; it takes time. But at some point, you can become the insightful person who begins to speak at the meeting and prompts everyone else to drop their jelly doughnuts and take notes. Until that time, you’re laying the perfect groundwork to prove that you are ready for next-level leadership.

Let me know what you think!

This is part of a series about the attributes and behaviors of professionals who have elevated their leadership impact and reached the next level of success. To read previous posts about next-level leadership, please click here.