The word “authority” has connotations of power and control. Often negative connotations. It makes me, personally, feel nervous.
But I just asked the woman sitting across from me – a well-dressed, bespectacled and beautiful woman in her early fifties – how she’d define “an authority,” as in: someone who’s an authority on something, and here’s what she said. (Note that she’d previously asked me to watch her laptop while she went to the washroom, so we had an established rapport. Plus she owed me one.)
“An authority. Someone who knows what they’re talking about,” she said, after a few seconds of thought, eyes cast out the window. “Someone at the top of their field.”
Bingo. I smiled and thanked her.
Then I remembered to ask her if she’d heard the term thought leader, and whether being ‘an authority’ was the same as being a ‘thought leader’. She instantly crinkled her nose. “I hate that term,” she said. “They’re probably synonymous, but thought leader feels like an awful buzzword.”
Love this woman. I thanked her again, we chatted a bit further, and I promised to send her the link to this post. She also revealed that she was a school principal. An authority on children, then? I asked her. She shook her head and laughed. “Nobody can ever be an authority on children. I am pretty good with children’s parents, though.”
Revealing. The number of authorities who don’t consider themselves authorities, is, I would guess, a long one. Which may speak to humility. But it may also speak to wisdom–perhaps supporting the truth of poet Anne Bradstreet’s old quote: “Authority without wisdom is like a heavy ax without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish.”
For me, being an authority or thought leader in your industry is truly about knowing your stuff—and being known to know your stuff. When you’re an authority, you’re not just successful, or knowledgeable. You’re the person with answers that can be trusted, with insight that’s original, and with experience to back it.
But it’s also about being known. Being an authority on a particular subject also means belonging to a community that recognizes your value.
We content marketing sorts are always going on about the importance of genuine connection. Why? Because content marketing isn’t a short-term gain. If you want quick wins, you’ll buy advertising or pull off flashy PR stunts to gain attention. That can all be great. I prefer to focus on quality content that speaks some truth, to gain genuine, interested attention, trust, and engagement. In this world, being credible matters, incredibly. Being trustworthy matters. Content marketing is not just about gaining customers, we say; it’s about building a tribe – growing a community.
And you need not be the leader of your tribe to have authority. Sure, being the authority on a given subject is worth going after – but having authority in a subject area that you’re passionate about it is enormously valuable, and a step that you must take, again and again, as you establish and cultivate your reputation.
So how to grow your authority? It may run counter to your instincts, but revealing your flaws, your failures, and your weaknesses may just be the place to start.
Vulnerability is perhaps one of the most surprising traits of authority. But by showing your community that you don’t always necessarily know all the answers, and/or that you’ve struggled with decisions, and with mistakes along the way, while always remaining committed to your cause, you may earn their trust.
And of course, this goes for a brand as well as an individual. Don’t be afraid to show what makes you unique, quirky and interesting. Don’t miss the opportunity to show that you can relate to your audience’s problems, challenges, and feelings. Be authentic, and be human.
As an authority, you’ll state opinions that you wholly believe and stand behind. You’ll be yourself, warts and all. You’ll take steps to promote and facilitate meaningful discussion about subjects important to you. Your intention will be to better the industry, and to support positive change. And you will be open to evolution.
It’s tempting to surround ourselves with people who share, and therefore reinforce, our beliefs and values. But it is necessary to participate in conversations that challenge those beliefs and values as well, and to be willing to learn from the others taking part in it.
Authority should, ideally, make a positive difference, and contribute to progress in some way. It should spark or at least contribute to a shared narrative.
You can make yours a voice that counts. Just speak with the truth of your experience. With humility. And a bit of kindness and humour never hurts, either.