By Ken Dychtwald
As I greet 2023 with optimism and hope, I also see grand challenges all around, from hard-hit communities in my own home state to a land war in Europe and global climate change at code red. Of course, professionally I’m focused on the looming challenges—and wide-ranging opportunities—of global population aging as the age wave hits us with full force in the coming decades. To meet the world’s challenges, we need new ideas, big ideas—and that requires thought leadership.
I have always been drawn to and curious about modern-day thought leaders. What made JFK so compelling? How did MLK, Jr. capture our imagination so profoundly with his “I Have a Dream” speech? How did Betty Friedan give voice to millions of American women fed up with traditional gender roles in the 1960s and beyond? How did Steve Jobs repeatedly reinvent himself and a half dozen industries along the way, while inspiring the world to think differently about technology’s role in our lives?
In my own way, I’ve been attempting to be a thought leader in the fields of gerontology and longevity for nearly five decades. I have given presentations to more than two million people, written 19 books and I’m proud of the fact that over the years, my company Age Wave’s work has garnered 20 billion media impressions worldwide. Through lots of trials and errors, with some exhilarating successes and numerous painful failures, I’ve come to believe that there are seven key ingredients for getting out in front as a thought leader—and staying there with unwavering dedication to your vision.
- Have a forward-facing vision and a clear mission. Imagine how you’d like things to be and why, the path to getting there, and what roles others will need and want to play to realize that vision. Looking backward can provide fascinating and educational historical perspective, but forward-facing vision is a requirement of thought leadership.
- Cultivate excellent communication skills. Put the work in to become a persuasive multimedia communicator, and then work hard to continuously grow and improve at it. Natural talent is a good start, but you can always get better with the help of classes, workshops, and being coached. As the decades have unfolded, I have taken the opportunity throughout my professional life to engage numerous speaking coaches to improve my game.
- Make sure your content is airtight. When you are vetted by the White House or asked to speak in front of world leaders, CEOs, or experts in a field, if your facts are wrong or uninformed, it’s over. Do your homework, know what you’re talking about, and understand what others are thinking. A few years back, I thought I’d benefit from understanding the history of aging worldwide, so I hired the world’s leading gerontologic historian Dr. Andrew Achenbaum to tutor me – which has come in very handy. And, be sure to own up to what you don’t know which will garner greater respect.
- Be prepared to course-correct. No matter who you are or what path you’re on, you’d probably benefit from some good editing. This requires a willingness to learn new things, listen to others, and repeatedly adjust your orientation. In my early 30s, I was straddling three different fields—human-potential oriented psychology, holistic health, and gerontology. One night over dinner with friends Marilyn and Bob Kriegel (author of The C-Zone: Peak Performance Under Pressure) they argued that if I remained so diffused, I’d run the risk of not getting much done in any of these fields. They challenged me to pick one field and allow the other interests to fall in line. That discussion led directly to the creation of Age Wave, Inc. Fast-forward almost 40 years and today Age Wave continues to strive to make a positive impact on the profound business, social, healthcare, financial, workforce, and cultural implications of global aging. Thank you Kriegels for encouraging me to be more focused.
- Have mentors. I don’t know how anyone can become a leader in any field without mentors, and I don’t mean cheerleaders. When choosing mentors, don’t be afraid to aim high. The most influential gerontology-related mentors to me were Maggie Kuhn, head of the Gray Panthers and Dr. Bob Butler, founder of the National Institutes on Aging—pioneers in the field. Years later, after giving a speech at Georgia Southwest State University for Rosalyn Carter, President Jimmy Carter became a friend and powerful mentor. Of course, you don’t always get a former U.S. president as your mentor, but a co-worker could have an equally lasting impact. As could a client, student, grandparent, or even grandchild. In fact, intergenerational mentorship can be particularly meaningful. My friend Chip Conley, a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, author, and thought leader in his own right, has conjured up the idea of a “mentern,” a cross between a mentor and an intern, because Chip believes that great leaders are both wise and curious—and fully committed to lifelong learning.
- Be courageous, have a strong will and a resilient heart. It is not always easy to try to be a pathfinder. While there will be moments of consensus and even praise, there will also be times when people disagree with you or are disappointed in you. There will be times when what you’re dreaming of won’t materialize. Some days you’ll say things you think are brilliant and people simply won’t care. Having the courage to believe in your convictions and the resilience to move forward can be one of your greatest assets.
- Surround yourself with a supportive network. As your trials and errors proceed, you may feel hurt again and again. Your faith, your community, your team, and/or your family can be your greatest champions. My sturdiest base of support has come from my family, as well as my terrific work partners. If you experience success and fame, you may also start drinking too much of your own Kool-Aid. It’s important to have people who will tell you the truth and make sure you don’t go off to Elvisville (my affectionate term for the state of unreality that some famous people relocate to). Be sure there are people in your world who love you, are honest with you, and who will support your need to go out and change the world.
I hope that these tips, developed over decades of trial and error, will help you forge your own bold path. The world is calling, and caring, impactful leaders are needed now more than ever.
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