Organizational Behavior: Confessions of a Guru

The business world is the only place I know where the term “guru” still seems to have a largely positive connotation. In religion and politics, gurus are seen as extraordinary but sometimes dangerous leaders with fanatical followers who enthusiastically—and sometimes blindly—bend to their wishes, even when it results in their own destruction and the destruction of others. Yet the modern business guru is still revered, even during the current downturn. Writers and speakers like Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, Clay Christensen and the current darling, Jim Collins, are celebrated as brilliant individuals with ideas that can revolutionize how we think about and manage companies.

I’ve always objected to the term “guru” because it implies a flawed and ultimately destructive view of how business knowledge should be developed, sold and used. But I’ve hesitated to attack the term openly because a little voice inside me says, “You are jealous, you want to be a guru, too; you just aren’t as successful as Peters or Collins.”

I confess that this evil voice still haunts me. But I worked up the courage to attack “guru-dom” and all it implies when I was included in the Business 2.0 Guide to Gurus in October. My mother is delighted with the publicity, and so is my speaker’s bureau. Yet I still feel compelled to urge those in the business press as well as other players in the market for business knowledge to stop using the word “guru” because it implies too many half-truths about how management knowledge is produced, and how it ought to be evaluated and used.

My main objection is that gurus are glorified as lone geniuses who conjure up revolutionary new ideas about strategy, innovation, marketing, managing people and the like. Gurus seem to do everything in their heads without thinking about others’ work, while famous scientists thank those who came before them, as Sir Isaac Newton did when he said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The implication is that management knowledge is developed through a drastically different process than that in the physical sciences, that only an anointed management genius can generate big new ideas, that they do it alone, and that their ideas are magically produced in complete form without drawing on others’ work.

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