The great Mississippi Delta bluesmen were the social media strategists and content marketers of their day. They were master storytellers who riffed on infidelity, alcoholic binges, migration, and desperation while pining for a better life in the throes of the Great Depression. Laboring in extreme poverty in the racially-oppressed Deep South, these men set their experiences to music, consistently took their performance to a higher level, and grew an appreciative and loyal following. A questionable morality notwithstanding, such is the essence of authentic thought leadership.
The early American blues musicians led a nomadic lifestyle, ultimately settling in the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s, where they birthed a genre of music that fused traditional African music and European folk music. Delta Blues would eventually make its way up the Mississippi River to Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago. This geographical movement became an important piece of the storytelling. Although the style of play changed, and new instruments were added to the mix, the music kept its folky feel.
Sowing the Seeds of Thought Leadership
By day, the Mississippi Delta bluesmen peddled their songs on street corners in the blazing-hot sun, plucking crudely-strung cigar box guitars, blowing into harmonicas, and taxing their voices to the limit. The competition for the ears of passersby was cutthroat. If folks didn’t like the story that one musician was telling, they crossed to the other side of the street to hear another. Those who sang the loudest won the audience. They also captured the attention of visiting record label talent scouts, and were eventually invited up north to record.
At night, in smoky, dimly-lit juke joints, the bluesmen imbibed hard, sang hard, and caroused until dawn, or until the whiskey ran out. Their volatile lifestyles provided fertile soil for song lyrics, and some found themselves on the wrong side of the law. (The trials and tribulations of prison life is also a prominent theme in Delta Blues. Several of the key players were “inspired” by their incarceration in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm.)
Nowadays, anyone on the thought leader’s journey can identify with what these men endured to get their name out. The competition for impressions is an everyday battle. In the Digital Era, one builds a following through content—stellar, original, and relevant content—and dogged determination. Recognition as a thought leader comes to those who rise above the noise and consistently produce work that is liked, valued, and shared.
In essence, what can we learn about thought leadership from the great Mississippi Delta bluesmen?
1). Thought leaders have stories to tell and the fire burning within to tell them.
The Mississippi Delta bluesmen had an almost pathological need for attention. This is what drove them to be great. Theirs was an irrepressible passion that came from deep down in the belly, a veritable palette of beliefs and emotions that fought for an escape.
Most of the recordings from the period that survived are of poor quality, but the tormented souls of these musicians cannot be drowned out by the pops, crackles, and hiss of the old vinyl. (Yazoo Records, a record label founded by Nick Perls in the late 1960s, is dedicated to the preservation of these works. Source: Wikipedia.)
THE LESSON: Thought leadership is developed and communicated through story. Story stirs the imagination and unifies an audience. Thought leaders have a relentless desire to express themselves, assert their influence, and elevate above the masses. The respect they command is a byproduct of their persistence; it is earned through extended discourse and by walking their talk.
2). Thought leaders differentiate their message, and understand the media that will best convey it.
The Mississippi Delta bluesmen were observant citizen journalists who waxed philosophical on what they saw play out in a racially-charged society and leveraged a messaging platform all their own. They became the megaphone for a culture paralyzed by poverty and sang about what people wanted to hear. They extracted the dominant ideas and motifs, hand-hammered them into compelling stories, and gave the finished product an original and easily identifiable form.
Conveyance of thought through song is accomplished through the human medium of voice and the man-made medium of a musical instrument. A bluesman would only go as far as his ravaged larynx and guitar, harp, or piano could take him. Whereas the chords were identical on a page, the manner in which they were interpreted, sequenced, and delivered was unique. Each musician became known for his technique, and put his own personal stamp on every performance.
THE LESSON: Thought leadership escalates on the consistency and impact with which the message is disseminated. As you explore the potential reach of your platform, isolate and consolidate the keywords and choice phrases that are integral to your message and incorporate them into your written and oral content. Once you own your niche, you can optimize the channels through which to inform and inspire others.
3). Thought leaders are relatable, accessible, and transparent.
The early blues players became figureheads and spokespeople by honing their message and leveraging their immense talent. The music retained a communal quality to which others could relate. The bluesmen were visible and available every day, celebrating and commiserating right along with their audience.
These musicians operated from a place of pain. The recordings reveal a guttural quality to the singing—more like wailing, actually—that clearly conveyed vulnerability and offered no barriers. Their joys, sorrows, hopes, and transgressions were illuminated through the music, which found common ground among the masses and deepened the personal connection.
THE LESSON: Thought leadership is driven by openness and accountability in interpersonal communications. Meaningful engagement in business is a two-way street; the more you give of yourself, the more you will receive in kind. To thrive as a thought leader, you must be perceived as approachable. Those that are privy to your value will be more inclined to share it. Your authenticity is what will draw people in and keep them interested.
At the Crossroads of Thought Leadership
Many people in their private moments of desperation have cut a deal with a higher power. You may know the story of Robert Johnson, one of the seminal figures in early American blues. Legend has it that a young Johnson, consumed by ambition, took his guitar “down to the crossroads” near Dockery Plantation (considered the birthplace of Delta Blues music), and made a Faustian pact with the devil (or demonic entity in human form), offering up his soul in exchange for commercial success.
Great leaders ascend in times of turbulence through persistence, yet often find themselves at the proverbial crossroads when confronting decisions. In the tradition of Johnson and the great bluesmen, we are all pavement pounders, chasing a dream. Who hasn’t arrived at a stalemate professionally and turned to some spiritual presence to sway a positive outcome, offering up a righteous life from that point on as barter?
In the Digital Era, everybody, it seems, claims to be an expert, has an opinion, and is selling an idea. Authors, bloggers, speakers, consultants, and coaches vie for attention in an already-jammed space. Whereas there are many who covet thought leader status, not everyone is willing to gut it out to get there. Those who want it bad enough will do what the Mississippi bluesmen did—that is, build sweat equity into their venture and relentlessly externalize their story. A few may even close the devil on a long-term plan of self-preservation.
♦ If you aspire to thought leadership, these artists from a bygone era give great insight into what it takes to rise above the norm, strike a chord (literally) with a receptive audience, and consistently deliver value. Your ascent to thought leadership correlates to the power of your story, and the strength of your commitment to share it.
♦ Thought leaders espouse a viewpoint, sell themselves convincingly, and engage an expanding community. Social media encourages us to be authentic. Those that widen the window into their world, and parcel out their value with authority, increase their likelihood of breaking into the thought leadership conversation.
♦ Becoming a thought leader is a deliberate pursuit. In order to gain widespread recognition for your intellectual property, you must first exert your influence locally. How will you elevate your profile within your own tribe? Why are your ideas and opinions worthy of consideration? What are the best available outlets for your message?
Is your voice loud enough to win ears, minds, hearts, and souls?
Since 2006, JD Gershbein, CEO of Owlish Communications, has helped advance the collective awareness of LinkedIn and inspired opportunity-oriented professionals in all walks of business to step up and achieve on the site. His ability to spark others to action has earned him the moniker of “The LinkedIn Catalyst.” JD is considered one of the world’s top thought leaders on LinkedIn, and a pioneer in the design and delivery of LinkedIn education. He is also a globally acclaimed social business psychologist, keynote speaker, and frequent broadcast media expert on LinkedIn for business. Additionally, JD is adjunct professor of marketing communications at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business, where he is advancing social media marketing as an academic discipline. In addition to his blog, The Wisdom Zone, JD is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Forbes.
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