How to Be a Thought Leader: 11 Lessons from the Rise of Scott Galloway

I never used to know who Scott Galloway was, but it’s hard to remember a time I didn’t.

The man – and his thought leadership – is everywhere. He first came to my attention through his co-host role on the Pivot podcast, alongside tech journalist and New York Times editorial page writer Kara Swisher.

But from what I can tell, Galloway's overnight success really got started in 2015, with his now-famous presentation at a DLD conference, titled, The Four Horsemen: Amazon / Apple / Facebook & Google – Who Wins / Loses, which would later become a book, The Four.

Today, Galloway, a professor at the NYU Stern, writes the No Mercy / No Malice newsletter. He appears on CNBC (now banned) and CNN. Does countless interviews. Speaks at conferences. Hosts paywalled webinars. Tweets. Has a Vice TV show.

That degree of renown for thought leadership makes him kind of a unicorn, and his road to success is not easy to copy.

But you can emulate Galloway with a few techniques.

Here are ten tips to help you become a thought leader - Scott Galloway edition (btw, if necessary, here's some background on thought leadership as a PR strategy).

1. Attack Your Own

Galloway knows the super-secret handshake of thought leadership: Attack your own.

We love politicians attack politics. Lawyers who attack the legal industry.

Reporters who attack the media.

The Facebook co-founder who hates Facebook.

The Silicon Valley programmer who hates tech.

And so on.

It’s an old trick, and Galloway, an NYU MBA professor who spends about a third of his time going after higher education for failing society, is the master.

How to apply this lesson:

Define the categories you fall into: role, industry, demographic, expertise, etc.

Think about what’s wrong with each, what makes you uncomfortable about it, and then attack.

Keep it real, though. No sense making waves if you don’t believe in what you’re saying.

2. Leverage Other People’s Credibility

Galloway had accomplished a ton in his life, but he was completely unknown to me before he partnered with Kara Swisher for the Pivot podcast.

Swisher has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, so if she wanted to share her presence with this new guy, I instantly went along.

How to apply this lesson:

Who is writing the stories everyone in your space shares?

What podcasts speak most compellingly to your audiences?

Get in front of those writers and hosts in two steps:

(1) Build a real relationship.

(2) Find ways to work together – contribute articles, share their work on social, offer to be a guest, etc.

3. Actually Have Thoughts

Galloway has no shortage of thoughts.

On higher education. On Facebook. On the emotional state of adolescent males. On Tesla (one he would take back).

And more than just hot takes, he has an informed and consistent approach that guides his thinking.

That is, you can see the connective tissue from one idea to the next.

How to apply this lesson:

Sit down and write.

Have an idea you’re noodling in your head? Write it out until it solidifies.

Find yourself sharing the same advice time and time again? Write it out and own the category.

When you write, you solidify your worldview.

When you solidify your worldview, your thinking becomes more clear.

And when your thinking is clear, the better you’ll be as a thought leader.

4. Make Predictions

Thought leadership isn’t just about telling people how something is done or what they need to know.

It’s about looking into the future.

Galloway does this incredibly well (WeWork’s troubles, Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods), if not always accurately (again, see Tesla).

How to apply this lesson:

Let’s look at COVID-19 as an example for this one.

So many stories are about “What is COVID-19 doing to industry X today” or “How to handle COVID-19's challenges.”

But to level up your thought leadership you should think longer term and talk about ways COVID-19 will change your industry or your customers’ lives forever.

5. Create a Bad Guy – Even If You’re a Nice Guy

There are two big bad guys Galloway goes back to time and time again:

  1. Higher education
  2. Facebook

By having a bad guy, he has a constant energy source, comfort food for his righteously indignant soul. Hardly a podcast or newsletter goes by without Galloway making mention of one or the other.

How to apply this lesson:

Galloway gets to be a generalist, so he has a lot of leeway for creating bad guys. But for most startup founders, the bad guy will be the incumbent player or the old way of doing things.

6. Know Your Numbers

Galloway knows that arguments gain a great advantage when backed by data. Better yet, when backed by data that drives emotion and engagement.

One particularly strong example came earlier this summer. Galloway and his team ran the numbers to see which universities were most at risk from COVID-19 – collecting public data on cost, financial strength, reputation, and student engagement. 

They then created a full spreadsheet and the graphic below showing which schools would thrive, barely survive, or even fail.  It took higher ed by storm – and the resulting conversation put Galloway squarely in the middle.


How to apply this lesson:

Know the stats that matter about your company, your market, your competitors, and your customers.

Cherry pick the data – proprietary and public both – that best supports your argument.

Generate your own data through third-party research

7. Express Humility

Like Kara Swisher, Galloway doesn’t shy from a boast.

They both know they’ve accomplished a lot, and false modesty isn’t a thing they spend much time with.

But where he does express humility is how he got to where he is today and where he falls short of where he’d like to be. I pasted the text below from one of his recent newsletters:

I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad, and my blessings. My mom raised me, but my livelihood is largely a function of two things:

    • Luck (being born at the right place and time); and
    • More luck … inheriting my father’s communications skills.

I regularly say things and write emails that make good people feel bad, and I know it. No excuse. Because I’m successful, people often recast it as honesty, or even leadership. No, it’s just being an asshole. Working on it.

How to apply this lesson:

You didn’t get here alone, and you’ve made mistakes along the way.

Express awareness of this and you’ll come across better, not worse, for having needed help or dealt with failure.

8. Ditch “I Think"

One of the subtle things he does that few others do is he rarely prefaces statements with “I think.”

The implication? Great confidence and knowledge, even if it’s not always there (or deserved, again, see Tesla).

How to apply this lesson:

Stop saying “I think.” That’s it.

9. Repeat Yourself. Repeat Yourself.

If Galloway had a tagline, it would be, “Have takes, will travel.”

From podcasts to cable news to Vice to newsletters to paid webinars, Galloway is incredibly prolific in terms of where he speaks. He’s less prolific in what he says, and that repetition makes his thoughts more impactful.

In short, Galloway repeats the following: Facebook is a scourge. Higher education is failing society. Young men are in danger.

How to apply this lesson:

You don’t want the exact same article or the exact same interview every time, but repeating themes and ideas is actually critical to becoming a thought leader.

Try to “own” expertise on a specific thing before moving on to another.

10. Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Galloway frequently references current and former colleagues with quotes, observations, and insights he shares.

Here’s a recent one – the gist of which he’s repeated often enough to make this a fit for the prior advice: “A mentor, Todd Benson, taught me that market dynamics trump individual performance.”

How to apply this lesson:

Your ideas aren’t just yours, they were influenced by those who helped you along the way.

Reflect on the great advice you’ve been given and how it frames your worldview, and then share credit with folks who have impacted you.

11. Cultivate a Brand

His name is Scott Galloway but from his newsletter he’s the self-proclaimed “Prof G” and, yes, “The Big Dog.” He even has his own logo. Prof G

The "Big Dog" nickname might be a little eye-rolling, but it's generally said with good humor, and it makes him stand out.

How to apply this lesson:

I don’t recommend giving yourself a nickname, but there are other ways to build your brand.

Let’s say your startup wards off hackers. Building your brand starts with consistently talking about that topic over time, so people think: “Oh, that’s the hacker guy.”

Part of it is owning your thought leadership, perhaps by starting the “Hacker Guy Blog.”

And part of it is working your way into events and onto podcasts, where you can be introduced as the Hacker Guy.

You Don’t Have to Love Galloway’s Takes to Learn from Him

Love him or hate him (but really, why hate?), Scott Galloway is the ultimate thought leader.

He brings deep knowledge, boundless energy, a touch of humility, and – something we need to counter the more egregious of the startup and tech messiahs – a healthy skepticism.

Not only does he help us understand the tech world, he provides the ideal model for you to follow to become a top thought leader in your own space.