The Problem With Gurus

By Ron Pereira Published on November 15th, 2010

Gurus really bother me.

These gurus come in many different shapes and sizes. They may think they know all there is about lean, or six sigma, or cooking, or coaching a sports team, or raising a family.

You see, gurus are everywhere and they really annoy me. Here are a few reasons why.

  • They’re always talking about their amazing education. The thing they don’t realize is that no one really cares how many letters are after their name. Plus, I’ve known PhD’s who worked for people with nothing more than a high school education. In the end, the degree gets you a job (sometimes)… after that it’s your work effort and attitude that determines the rest.
  • They think they have all the answers. When asked a question gurus almost never reply with “I don’t know” as they see this as a sign of weakness. It’s not.
  • They don’t seek help. Because they think they have all the answers they never ask for help when they clearly need it. Simply responding, “I don’t know, what do you think?” is a wonderful way to combat this stubbornness.
  • They talk down to people. This one really ticks me off. Gurus often stand in front of the room rattling off buzz word after buzz word even though half the room has no earthly idea what they’re talking about. And when one brave soul raises their hand for clarification the guru makes them pay for it with a smug reply.
  • Few follow them. While this one doesn’t necessarily annoy me, the guru has very few followers. The guru may even be a leader on paper… but they often complain about how un-loyal those under them are.

Don’t Be a Guru

There is a BIG difference between really knowing your stuff and acting like a guru. Here are a few things I recommend.

  • Learn all you can. It’s totally cool to get an amazing education while also learning all you can long after your college days. Just don’t brag about how smart you think you are as this only makes you look smug and arrogant.
  • Ask others for help. Being a leader means helping others grow. So, ask for help when you don’t know something. Additionally, ask for help when you know the answer. That is leadership.
  • Be humble. No matter how successful you are… be humble. I’ve been blessed with many things in my life. But, for me, I know the reason for anything good in my life is my Lord and God. So no matter if you believe in God or not… humility is arguably the most important virtue any leader can have.
  • Be kind. Lastly, when you stand in front of others as a subject matter expert speak to people with respect and kindness. This means explaining what all the buzz words mean as well as answering questions in such a way others will not be afraid to ask for more clarification.

What do you think?

What do you think of my stance on gurus? Am I being too tough on them? Or can you think of other reasons gurus need to be brought back down to earth?

  1. Chad Wilson

    November 15, 2010 - 10:41 am

    Talking down to people is the thing I hate the most. So I definitely agree this is not the way to lead or teach people. I also agree with being humble. Everything stems from this.

  2. Charles Jordan

    November 15, 2010 - 10:52 am

    As a person that received his PhD I had to laugh as my last manager was far less educated than I am. But he was, and continues to be, a great leader of people.

    So while I am obviously a proponent of higher education there is truth in the fact that this alone cannot replace work ethic and attitude and if flaunted (education status) can turn into a negative situation.

  3. John Hunter

    November 15, 2010 - 3:14 pm

    There are several things that destroy your ability to be affective. Thinking you have all the answers (which leads to stopping leaning) is probably at the top. Along with any other reason for stopping learning, more interested in…

    How to are taken by people is very important. If people see you as talking down to them, it is very difficult to have them listen and care about what you say. At the same time I find even more annoying the people that refuse to say something that will annoying anyone (especially in responding to questions). You don’t want to talk down to people, but it is perfectly all right to challenge them. You need to respect them AND challenge them to improve how things are being done.

    Look at people like Ackoff and Deming. They knew more than pretty much anyone I have known about management. Yet both continued learning until the day they died. They were quick to credit others. They were quick to challenge people but also had an obvious respect and compassion for people.

  4. Tom Stallard

    November 16, 2010 - 7:31 am

    I agree 100%. A great win-win method in team building is to ask a question when you already know the answer.

  5. Chris Mauldin

    November 16, 2010 - 8:23 am

    Amen! I agree with your article 100%. To even add a little more, the so-called Gurus typically have no skin in the game. Ownership is another strong factor when creating success. I personally have learned from some very good Gurus, conversely, I have gotten very angry with others. It is easy to walk in to a business, identify waste in a process, suggest counter-measures, get your paycheck and leave. Creating an atmosphere for change with true understanding of why it needs to occur seems to be the much harder task! Hopefully the companies are preparing this long before the Guru comes to visit.

  6. Mike Alderman

    November 16, 2010 - 9:31 am

    Nice article…my words of advice to myself have always been…”the more I think I know, the more I realize I need to learn”.

  7. Blake Merrell

    November 16, 2010 - 9:50 am

    I agree so much with this post. I rececntly read some articles that touch on the subject of pride, humility and gratuitde.

    In this articel the Guru that is being talked about reminds me of a Pridefull person. Pride is the orginal sin and is the great sin of self-elevation. Pride is a dealdy cacer. It is a gateway sin that leads to a host of other human weaknesses. In fact, it could be said that every other sin is, in essesnce, a manifestation of pride. — Dieter Uchtdorf

    Pride is the universal sin, the great vice. The antidote for pride is humility—meekness, submissiveness. — Ezra Benson

    “We can lift ourselves and others as well when we refuse to remain in the realm of negative thought and cultivate within our hearts an attitude of gratitude. If ingratitude be numbered among the serious sins, then gratitude takes its place among the noblest of virtues. Someone has said that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” -Thomas Monson

    All in all, the GREATEST leaders I have ever had privilage to work with are those that are greatful, humble, kind. These are the people I want to be like.

  8. Owen Berkeley-Hill

    November 16, 2010 - 11:42 am

    Unfortunately as long as Lean slides off the Teflon coating of the vast majority of today’s business leaders, as it has done for the last three decades; as long as these leaders believe that it is possible to get instant and perfect solutions without any effort on their part (forgetting Deming’s quote about instant pudding); and as long as we believe that a purely academic education (including the MBA and the PhD) is the right grounding for leaders and managers, Gurus will breed like flies.

    Learning, asking for help, being brave in public asking the “dumb” question, and offering kindness only happen if you have spent enough time with people at the sharp end to realise that they possess knowledge, different from that which you possess, but no less valuable.

    I believe the root cause is management education which has been going pear shaped for a few decades. There was a time in American companies when you had to prove your worth and potential regardless of academic qualifications. Then, implicitly and insidiously only people with university degrees could climb onto the bottom rungs of the management ladder. Nothing explicit was said and HR lied that this was policy, but you could see good, deserving people not being promoted because their formal education only extended to high school. Now, I suspect the bar has been raised higher with promotion being based on a post-graduate qualification such as a Masters or an MBA, preferably from a good school. What is interesting is that during the same period these companies took a look at their “core competencies” and decided that education and training was not “core”, and outsourced these departments thereby increasing their dependence on paper qualifications. I say this with sadness because I learnt more and was better taught by the company schemes than I was during my first degree.

    Can you teach management in a classroom? The idea is as daft as believing you can teach medicine or someone to fly exclusively through chalk ‘n talk and PowerPoint. Imagine your reaction to a surgeon admitting just before he opened up your skull that his only experience of brain surgery was a multiple-choice exam which he barely passed. But large organisations (the “lead” thinkers) see the MBA as the gold standard and this makes it the most lucrative degree offered by any university anywhere in the world. And having paid an arm and a leg to get that degree, very few MBA graduates will be willing to learn the business (the whole business) thoroughly from the ground up. Then add to the mix the siren voices of the lead consulting companies who, like the Jesuits, believe in moulding young (and perhaps very empty) minds. Given the choice of working in a greasy cell in something called “Ops” or wearing Armani in McKinsey’s WHQ, which would you choose?

    The other reason why our present education process and attitudes breed these industrial Brahmins is because there are no quantifiable measures of how well a manager is using the brain power at her or his disposal. “Sweating the assets” is a glib expression I have heard often from the lips of many newly minted MBA, but how many can minimise the EIGHTH waste: the underutilization of the knowledge, experience and imagination of the people in an organisation? I’m told that it is rare to see people firing on more than 20% or their capabilities. I’m not sure how this is measured, but I suspect that it might be instinctively true. If managers are allowed this level of profligacy with an organisation’s ”most valuable asset”, is it surprising that we have so many gurus and their condescending attitudes?

  9. Mark R Hamel

    November 16, 2010 - 9:36 pm

    “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

  10. Jeff Hajek

    November 28, 2010 - 10:03 am

    Hi Ron,

    I’d say that what you describe is not so much ‘guru’ as it is ‘jerk’ (or other more colorful descrption). Anyone in any field who behaves the way your first list describes has real people-problems. And anyone who uses your advice from the second list greatly increases their odds of success in life.

    I do have to say, though, that I’ve learned a lot from gurus, senseis, consultants, experts, bloggers, etc. over the years. I just haven’t learned much from the jerks among them.

    Keep ’em coming. Love reading your stuff.

  11. Steve

    December 20, 2010 - 3:51 pm

    Are you defining guru’s or people who think they know everything. Whenever I’ve used or heard the term “guru” being used it is usually identifying someone who knows something or as Webster defines it, “a person with knowledge or expertise”, “one who is an acknowledged leader”. So, if I identify someone who has knowledge, expertise or acknowledge them as a leader then s/he is a “guru” and someone I would listen to in that area. I consider Ron, as well as others, a guru in the ways of lean manufacturing as I’ve watched most of the modules on Gemba and currently showing them to the rest of our crew.

    Now, there are guru’s that have a poor attitude or poor people skills. I’ve known some that treat people poorly and others just don’t know how to act so they come off way wrong. Where they have intellect, they lack in people skills. Those that have a poor attitude will end up alone in the end regardless of how smart they are.

  12. Anonymous

    December 22, 2010 - 8:05 am

    “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” — Humpty Dumpty

    Peter Scholtes, in my humble opinion, was one of the best teachers of Lean Leadership, though I doubt he would have recognized the term. Here is what Russell Ackoff had to say about Peter: “Peter Scholtes is an educator, not a guru. A guru is one who develops a doctrine and seeks disciples who accept and transmit it without modification (and without THINKING)*. Any modification is a sign of disloyalty, in fact, heresy. Its consequence is excommunication.”
    _ _ _ _ _
    * My small modification.

    The adoption of “guru” into the English language has somehow watered down and distorted its original meaning. As someone who was born and lived in India till I was 16, I was familiar with the way we had to accept “received wisdom” as education and how to regurgitate the “model” answer for maximum marks. Learning by rote was common and it was rare that we were encouraged to think. Elders and teachers were treated with a respect that is unusual in the West, and it was considered bad form to question them regardless how bonkers their opinion.

    If you accept this definition of the term, then many consultants are gurus with an attitude of, “Do as I say; do not think for yourselves; and do not do as I do”. By this definition I would regard Ron as an educator, not a guru.

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