From Walter White to Miley Cyrus: Thought Leadership Lessons

While polarizing pop star Miley Cyrus may not be a big fan of the television series Breaking Bad, she may have more in common with the show’s lead character, Walter White, than first meets the eye. Cyrus and White, while working in completely different industries, are exceptional at what they do. In fact, you could call them ‘thought leaders.’ So while you may be looking to successful bloggers, corporate CEOs, and industry gurus for a blueprint on effective thought leadership, some of the best examples may just be an unconventional click away.


I’m not going to tackle the definition of thought leadership in this post – we’ll leave that to the academics. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the practical components of thought leadership and see what can be learned from a couple of unlikely individuals.

The Roadmap to Becoming a Thought Leader

While I don’t know the specific roadmap to becoming a thought leader, I do know some of the places it passes through. There are five things every thought leader of our generation does well: (1) cast a vision, (2) produce quality information, (3) build partnerships, (4) act boldly, and (5) expand the empire. There are dozens of other things that need to be done, but these five are crucial.

How do I know? Take a look at the wrecking ball-size effect Miley Cyrus and Walter White have had on American culture in the last few months.

Cast a Vision

Whether it’s a fictional drug empire or a billion dollar music scene, every industry has thought leaders. And each of these thought leaders are excellent at casting a vision. While many feel that Miley Cyrus is a loose cannon without a plan, I tend to fall in the camp that believes she is a strategic genius.

Do you think Miley’s VMA performance was an accident? I don’t. I think it was the beginning of strategic vision casting. What about her raunchy “Wrecking Ball” music video? Not a mistake either. Every single move has been a strategically timed and planned event pointing to a larger plan. While we may never understand the details of the larger plan, her execution of it has allowed her to become a trend setter and thought leader in American entertainment.

Walter White was very much a man of vision as well. He found a way to take his small methamphetamine production and turn it into a billion dollar company. Sure, he had a little help along the way, but he also knew the outcome he wanted and took calculated moves to get there.

While I’m not suggesting making crystal meth in your backyard (see how it worked for these copycats), I am suggesting you take Walter White’s vision casting ability and transfer it over to your industry and area of expertise.

Start with the end in mind and work backwards. What is your area of expertise? Who do you want to share ideas with? How do you want to change your industry? You get the idea. Start with the goal and develop practical steps to get there.

Produce Quality Information

Superior and engaging content is at the heart of thought leadership. That means learning how to produce quality information to succeed as a thought leader. Again, there are differing opinions on the quality level of Miley’s music and videos, but for our sake, they are what I would call quality. They are engaging and thought provoking on so many different levels, taking what everyone else is doing and turning it on its head. You cannot become a thought leader by dishing out the status quo, but must instead produce quality information while daring to be different. Good thought leaders know how to toe this line.

Build Partnerships

Walter White took his business from an RV in the desert to a million dollar facility by understanding the importance of building partnerships. He had a talent, but he swallowed his pride and understood the need to find partners. He found someone to help him produce his product, people to sell it, and people to protect him – people to do all the things he needed to gain success. We all have some bit of drive in us to succeed without the help of others, but that cannot apply to a desire to become a thought leader.

In any industry, partnerships could look like associating with gatekeepers in that field. Forbes contributor John Hall had this to say: “Find out where people in your industry mingle online, and join the conversation. Don’t lurk; build authentic relationships. Learn from people who are wiser than you, and share your knowledge with those still learning.” You see, partnerships are about productivity and connectivity. Both are needed to become a thought leader.

Act Boldly

One thing we can all agree on: Miley Cyrus is bold. Throw everything else out the window and it is undeniable that Miley challenges the norm, squashes the average, and takes on the crazy. Treading lightly may please a few people and gain some followership, but it will not allow for genuine thought leadership. Miley is the epitome of bold in the way she dresses, acts, and works. Her boldness has allowed her to direct the attention and focus she receives to the places she wants. Regardless of industry, we can all learn a lesson from this: Boldness is attractive and the ability to act on it is a key component of successful thought leadership.

Expand the Empire

This one is really quite simple. After proving yourself good at one thing, start doing more. Successful thought leaders almost always have the chance to pursue additional opportunities, but only the best actually take advantage of them. Miley Cyrus could have been happy with her lead role on Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, or her status as a teen pop star, but instead seized the opportunity to become more. It is her never-settle attitude that allowed her to become one of the biggest names of 2013.

Walter White also had the opportunity to settle, but he too chose empire expansion. White could have continued his small-scale operation, but he opted for bigger and greater things. He partnered up, widened his market, and sought growth. As a thought leader, expanding an empire creates the opportunity to find new angles and reach new people. While becoming really good at one thing is an admirable idea, learning how to utilize current skill sets to take on new challenges is an even better one.

Thought leaders inadvertently share their tactics all the time if you learn where to look. While nothing is wrong with how-to articles, books, and podcasts on thought leadership, the real meat is found in observing it in action. Whether it’s a fictional television character or a sensational musical artist, every industry has its thought leaders. Watch closely to discover what they’re doing right.

Who are your favorite thought leaders in your industry? What have you learned from them?

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Schuyler Richardson

Schuyler was born and raised in Marietta, GA and attended college at the University of South Carolina, where he received a degree in Marketing and Management. He has always enjoyed writing and is now happy to do it professionally. Some of Schuyler’s previous job titles include landscaper, retail sales associate, and marketing intern in a Division I college athletic department. Outside of work, Schuyler has a wide range of hobbies and interests. He is a self-taught guitar player, novice woodworker, and avid sports fan. You can often find him watching his favorite teams: the Atlanta Braves and South Carolina Gamecocks. Additionally, Schuyler lives for the fall, because it means two things: good weather and college football.

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