6 Ways to Spot Real Gurus
I previously posted an article called 6 Ways to Spot False Gurus, which got an enormous response. It seems that I really touched a nerve.
While most of the feedback was positive, there was also some criticism. One woman pointed out (rightfully so) that it was a very negative post. I do feel that those who profess to advise others should be held to a higher standard.
Thankfully, there are many who meet that standard and are truly worth listening to. It is probably even more important to spot them as it is to avoid false gurus.
Following the same line of reasoning as the previous article, here are six ways to spot real gurus:
I Am Who I Am
Real gurus tend to have job titles we can understand. The most obvious are CEOs such as Jack Welch, Andy Grove and Lou Gerstner, all of whom have written highly worthwhile books. These folks obviously do not need book royalties or speaking fees, but seem to have a real desire to spread the knowledge that they have accumulated through hard experience.
Some, such as Clayton Christensen, Michael Porter and Phillip Kotler are academics who have done breakthrough research. Still others, such as Chris Anderson and Tom Friedman are journalists, who enjoy access that most of us don’t and are in a great position to observe trends.
I do not mean to suggest that one needs to be a CEO, Professor or a journalist to know anything worthwhile, but it is important to be up front about where you’re coming from. Descriptors like “guru” and “strategic visionary” don’t tell us much except that somebody thinks they’re smarter than we are.
Real gurus tend to have day jobs.
They Accurately Explain Change in Terms of Cause and Effect
In contrast to the “everything has changed” crowd, real gurus are very clear about what is changing and why.
Clayton Christensen researched highly successful, well managed companies that failed. This led him to his conclusion that in some circumstances (and he clearly laid out what they were) conventional management techniques had disastrous consequences.
Rather than just assuming that managers of failed companies are always stupid, he re-examined management doctrine. After years of serious research, he developed his highly influential (and much misunderstood) theory of disruptive innovation.
In a similar fashion, Chris Anderson, in both The Long Tail and Free, points specifically to the drastic decrease in marginal costs in his explanation of the emergence of new business practices. His work is not nearly as rigorous as Christensen’s, but serious thought is there.
Rigorous Domain Knowledge
Charles Darwin returned from his voyage on the HMS Beagle in 1836, but did write On the Origin of Species until 1858, twenty two years later. Einstein took ten years to formulate his special theory of relativity and ten years more to develop the general theory.
They both took several wrong turns along the way. Even geniuses can be mistaken (as Einstein often was in his later career). True insight doesn’t come easy.
I don’t consider Malcolm Gladwell a real guru, but he does do us the valuable service of pointing out those that are. Anders Ericsson, whose work featured prominently in Outliers, has studied expertise for decades and has found that it takes ten years and 10,000 hours to get really good at something. You can download the original paper here (pdf).
Real gurus have done real work.
Real Assessment of Contrary Evidence
Jim Collins can rightfully be called a guru. He writes books that are helpful and insightful. He doesn’t always get it right, but is eminently worthwhile to read.
One of the things that sets his books apart is that he examines not only successful companies, but also comparisons. Moreover, not every example fits every conclusion, but he’s careful to point out those instances as well. He is also extremely transparent about his methodology and data.
Collins knows that the world is messy and insights don’t come in neat little packages. He not only recognizes that he can be wrong, he provides us with everything we need to refute him.
After writing his first bestseller, Built to Last, Collins was having dinner with a friend who remarked, “I liked your book, but it was completely useless.” His friend pointed out that Collins merely described companies that were great from the start, not how to convert ordinary companies into winners.
Collins responded to the criticism by undertaking years of research and publishing Good to Great, which profiled businesses which had fifteen years of average performance followed by fifteen years of superior performance. It became an instant classic.
A Serious Record of Accomplishment
Duncan Watts and Albert-László Barabási are serious social network gurus and not because they can tell us how to use Facebook or Twitter. Rather, they discovered the basic principles of network theory and published the seminal papers in the field.
Moreover, both have written highly readable, insightful and entertaining books for the general market. If you are really and truly interested in social networks, go no further until you have read 6 Degrees and Linked, which offer surprisingly practical guides to how our world is connected.
Want to know about the Web? Why not look to Tim Berners-Lee, who actually invented it? You can see his TED speech or, even better, take the time to read his book, which is not only incredibly informative, but also a great read.
One of the nice things about real gurus is that they are often (but not always) highly motivated to share their insights and are eager to put complicated concepts into simple terms that the rest of us dummies can understand. Unlike false gurus, they have nothing to gain by confusing us in order to appear sophisticated.
Humility Before Complexity
In a complex world, wrong turns are inevitable. Many real gurus have failed more than they have succeeded. Others worked for decades in obscurity. None are perfect, nor do they profess to be.
When you encounter a real guru, you never get the feeling that success is simple; interesting and rewarding, sure, but not easy. However, they do make it easier for the rest of us. They share their experiences and give us the benefit of their mistakes.
What makes a guru real is not that they can point us to the simple path; rather they tell us how to navigate the hard road a bit more dexterously.